The year is just over half over, but already Jenny Offill is in the running for my favorite new novel of the year with her fantastic Dept. of Speculation (my review here). Now, Dept. of Speculation is ultimately hopeful, but it has a bitter quality to it. I obviously loved it, but because of the melancholic tone I was a bit surprised to find that Jenny Offill also writes children’s books (not that I’m trying to equate the author with a novel’s tone). When we finally picked up Sparky! (2014), Offill’s latest children’s book, for the boys, I was surprised to find it is in the running for my favorite new children’s book of the year. And, yes, it still has that bitter quality to it.
As you might guess from the cover, Sparky is a sloth, and Chris Appelhans’ excellent illustrations make Sparky very slothy indeed, as his weight pulls him down on everything as if he’s a heavy blanket. What brings Sparky to us? A wonderful, caring, devoted young girl, the narrator of this story. When the story begins, she wants a pet, but her mother keeps saying no. Finally, sure, Mom says, “You can have any pet you want as long as it doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.”
Well, that’s all the young girl needs. Some hope. As her mother says this, you see her face breaking into a smile. After a bit of research, she finds just the pet: a sloth.
And so begins this strange relationship, which gets at the girl’s devotion and desires as well as anything I can think of. The little girl does not care if her new friend sleeps almost all of the time or that he doesn’t play games quite right (meaning, at all); she needs someone. Just look at the thrill on her face when Sparky wakes up:
Yes, Sparky! is a charming book, an endearing book, and looking around I see many reviews calling it delightful. It certainly is. It’s also tremendously hopeful. And yet . . .
Sparky! is among the saddest books I’ve ever read, bringing out all the feelings of tenderness I can muster (I hope I’m capable of mustering a lot). The little girl is experiencing the loneliness of childhood, longing for companionship when others do not appreciate how devoted she must be. She has a lot to give, and she expects little in return.
Sweet? Well, yes. But it’s a bitter sweet, especially as we linger on its last line, which I hope you’ll discover soon.