Quote of the Month

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

Thursday, July 25, 2019

One Canny Canine

Their intelligence in assessing any given situation is remarkable.  Every sound and every scent are scrutinized. The most amazing thing is they enjoy bonding with humans.  They become our best friends; sometimes our only friends.  Their antics make us laugh.  Their loyalty makes us cry.

For these and multiple other reasons, dogs and their exploits are legendary.  Despite their instincts and knowledge, they take risks for the benefit of humans.  Not a day goes by without them inspiring and challenging us.  Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever (Cameron Kids, an imprint of Cameron + Company, April 23, 2019) written by Barbara Lowell with illustrations by Dan Andreasen introduces readers to a young Charles Schulz and his clever, crazy canine companion.

Sparky's dog, Spike, is a white dog with black spots.

We quickly learn exactly how wild and smart this dog is.  He rings the doorbell when he wants to come inside.  He comprehends at least fifty words.  If you say the word potato, he brings one to you.

Another truly baffling thing about this dog is his appetite for just about anything.  He eats sharp objects, metal objects, and never gets ill.  One day he swallows a whole, small red rubber ball.

With clockwork precision every Saturday evening around nine, Spike places his paw on Sparky's Dad's chair reminding him it is time to take a drive in the family car.  They go to the drugstore to pick up the comics in the Sunday paper.  (You have to wonder if the dog enjoyed seeing Sparky and his dad laughing so much, he wanted to take that trip each week.)

Sparky (Charles to his teachers) loves to draw and his talent is noticed by them and his classmates.  His real dream is cartooning.  It's tricky, though and after attending an exhibition of comic strips at the library, Sparky is discouraged.  It's Spike who gives him a brilliant idea.  This crazy pooch pal is surely worthy of a spot in the Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Sparky writes a letter with a small drawing of Spike and sends it to Mr. Ripley.  They wait and wait and wait some more to see if Sparky's drawing and information about Spike is printed.  Can you imagine this boy's joy when it's printed?  This is the first official appearance of Spike, the dog sparking the creation of one of the most famous beagles in the history of comics.

Regardless of your age, you'll be captivated by this endearing story written with meticulous care by author Barbara Lowell.  Her concise, straightforward sentences include astounding factual support for the two title words, wildest and smartest.  It's as if we are listening to her tell us face to face this true story a dog and his boy who grows up to write and draw beloved cartoon characters.  Here is a passage.

Every Saturday night at 9 o'clock, for two whole months, Spike signals to Sparky and his dad that it's time to drive down to the drugstore and pick up the Sunday comics.

And every Saturday night for two whole months, Sparky's picture of Spike is NOT in Ripley's Believe It or Not!


That's the way it goes.

Who can resist the front of the dust jacket?  Look at Sparky and Spike run.  Who knows what adventures await them or what the future will bring?  You know from looking at this image, they'll go together.  The style of artwork in this book, as first seen here, by Dan Andreasen is classic reminiscent of older cartoon or comic strip characters.  To the left, on the back, Sparky is writing his letter with the drawing of Spike to Mr. Ripley.  Spike's head rests next to Sparky's right hand as he draws.

An interior double-page picture is placed on the textured canvas of the book case.  From left to right, in four panels, it shows Sparky with a wooden paddle ball, the red, rubber ball bouncing furiously.  In the second panel it breaks loose, lobs into the air and is grabbed by Spike in the third panel.  In the final panel Spike swallows.  Above and below these images are sepia-toned comics from strips during Charles's childhood.  (This design is used again in another sequence to splendid effect.)

On the opening and closing endpapers, Dan Andreasen has drawn significant items from the book; a dog collar, a doghouse, a running faucet, a sack of potatoes, crayons, a dripping paint can, and a fountain pen, to name a few.  A double-page picture spans the title page.  Pawprints wind in loops from Spike's red house on a pale green background from left to right and beneath the text.   

With each page turn we experience double-page pictures, a collection of panels on a single page, or full-page pictures, framed or edge to edge.  There are several speech balloons to emphasize important moments.  Dan Andreasen alters his point of view to enhance the pacing.  One ingenious picture, to accentuate the time spent waiting, shows Sparky, Spike and Sparky's dad driving in the car on sheets of calendar paper being torn off from a small stand.  Clothing, interior and exterior designs of homes, and vehicles represent the historical period very well.  The actual Ripley's Believe It or Not! page is recreated as is Sparky's drawing.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is a larger version of the scene on the front of the dust jacket.  Sparky and Spike are running over a grassy field covering two pages.  A few shrubs are behind them.  Above the horizon is a sunny summer blue sky with one billowing cloud.  From the left to the right where Spike is running are pawprints.  Sparky is placed on the left side.  The pure bliss exhibited by this boy and his dog in their body postures and facial expressions is something to hold in your heart.  In a word . . . this is freedom.

Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever written by Barbara Lowell with illustrations by Dan Andreasen is a nonfiction picture book which will resonate with readers of all ages.  For those who've loved the Peanuts comic strip and especially Snoopy, this book is one they will remember for the fascinating facts and the impeccable illustrations.  Readers must read the illustrator's and author's notes at the end.  Dan Andreasen, as a young man, wrote a letter to Charles Schulz and he replied.  Barbara Lowell has black and white photographs of Spike and Sparky.  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections. 

To learn more about Barbara Lowell and her other work, please access her website by following the link attached to her name.  Barbara has prepared a curriculum guide for this title.  Barbara Lowell has an account on Twitter.  Barbara chats about her work and this book at The Children's Book Council, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, Maria Marshall The Picture Book Buzz and  Picture Book Builders.

Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other titles selected this week by participants in the 2019 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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