Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, May 12, 2014

Slow But Sure

For several years during a study of the rain forest, our students were treated to seeing some of the inhabitants of this biome.  Rather than being in a large venue, the keepers brought them into a classroom.  To be able to see these beautiful animals up-close was an unforgettable experience for our students (and for me too).  One of the most fascinating of all the creatures was the sloth.  Sleeping during the entire presentation, we were able to see all the special features on this unique being.

I often wonder how many of the students were thinking what I was thinking when seeing the sloth; what if we lived where they lived so we could see them as often as we see squirrels, rabbits or deer?  In Sparky! (Schwartz & Wade Books) written by Jenny Offill with illustrations by Chris Appelhans, a girl takes definite actions on her thoughts regarding a sloth.

I wanted a pet.
A bird or a bunny or a trained seal.

When approaching her mother with requests for each of these pets, her mother replies in the negative... repeatedly.  In an effort to convey her true desire for no pet all, her mother says

You can have any pet you want as long as it doesn't need to be walked or bathed or fed. 

That certainly narrows down her options but her mother did promise.  Luckily she has a super smart school librarian.  In the book given to her she discovers a picture and description of a sloth.  Wasting no time she orders this creature.  Guess who is not overjoyed at the sloth's arrival at their home?

Carrying her new friend, who she names Sparky, outside, placing him on tree branch, she makes sure to announce his presence with a Guard Sloth! sign.  He tends to sleep quite a bit making his skills at games less than stellar except for Statue (my smile grew to a grin at this point).  A rather irritating girl, Mary Potts, comes over to scoop out this neighborhood novelty.  Her unkind remarks cause the girl to advertise Sparky's numerable accomplishments with a talent show.

Her efforts all week to prepare Sparky for the Trained Sloth Extravaganza, while intense on her part, move with Sparky's own particular brand of speed.  On the day of the show Sparky performs to perfection as only he can.  When everyone, three guests including her mother, leaves the girl starts another game with her companion knowing the conclusion may come slowly.  That's her deepest hope.

Within the reading of the first two sentences you know a whisper of humor will be running through the narrative.  Author Jenny Offill maintains this feeling until the final sequence but as the story evolves something becomes even more apparent; a respectful acceptance and enduring affection between the girl and the sloth.  Her characters, the mother, the girl, the librarian, Mary Potts, Mrs. Edwin and the sloth, are wonderfully normal; sometimes described with a single sentence or bit of conversation.
Due to Offill's word choices in these limited depictions we know everything we need to know about them, feeling an emotional response or connection.  Here is a sample passage.

We stood there for a while, watching him sleep.  His fur ruffled gently in the breeze.
"I feel sorry for you", Mary said.  "My cat can dance on her hind legs.  And my parrot knows twenty words, including God and ice cream."

Using watercolor and pencil, illustrator Chris Appelhans creates pictures filled with warmth and charm.  The initial view of Sparky on the dust jacket and matching book case makes you want to hug him.  On the back the four vignettes of the girl with him make you want to hug her.  Endpapers in shades of soft brown, rose and green feature a pattern of grasses.

Thick creamy paper supplies the background for all the visuals using the same hues as the endpapers with darker rose red for increased emphasis.  Appelhans changes the size of his pictures to compliment and extend the narrative; images may be individual elements on a page, cover a portion of a page, and extend edge to edge on a single page or two pages.  When I saw how he pictured the girl as a ringmaster wearing a cape made from the same fabric as the curtain with a colander on her head, the tenderness and admiration I felt for this girl increased by leaps and bounds.  Clearly she is as much an individual as her sloth.  The font for this book was designed from Appelhans' hand lettering.

I have many favorite illustrations in this title but the final double-page spread is gorgeous.  On the left is Sparky's tree.  He is lying on the branch with the girl next to him, her hand extended to his head. The colander is hanging on the end. Beneath them and to the right is the setting sun.

Sparky! written by Jenny Offill with illustrations by Chris Appelhans is enchanting for the words, the pictures and the beautiful combination of the two.  This sloth and his girl will win a place in your heart.   Be sure to read it to every child you know...as often as you can.

If you wish to know more about either the author or the illustrator follow the links embedded in their names to their official websites.  This link to the publisher's website will give you a glimpse at interior pages in the book. If you go to the Random House Kids pages for Sparky! there are oodles of activities, printable bookmarks, different pages to see from inside the book and a Q & A with the author and illustrator.  Yesterday John Schumacher, teacher librarian and blogger at Watch. Connect. Read. hosted Chris Appelhans at his site.  Colby Sharp, teacher and blogger at Sharpread highlighted Jenny Offill. Make sure you read both of the interviews.

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