May’s Birthday Pick (Hurry Up Already)

May 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

Sparky! by Jenny OffillMost parents have some part of the morning routine that they dread. For me, it’s not convincing my kids to get dressed; it’s not getting them to sit still long enough to finish their oatmeal; it’s not even brushing their teeth or standing by as they wrestle with any amount of outdoor attire. No, the moment that requires the most patience, that threatens to unravel me almost every day, comes at the very end—ironically, when the finish line is so close that I can almost taste it. It’s the simple, straightforward 10 foot walk from our front door to the car. Getting my children into the car is like herding sloths. To look at them, you would think they had never stepped foot in the Great Outdoors before, the way they suddenly stop, stare off blankly into space, and eventually fix upon some object (a leaf, a truck, a worm misplaced from last night’s rainstorm), which inevitably prompts 25 questions Of The Utmost and Immediate Importance. At some point, they will begin to walk ever so slowly to the car, wedging themselves through the open car door with their overstuffed backpacks still on (will it ever occur to them to take off the bag before climbing in?), then struggling with car straps in some kind of slow-motion agony (my youngest: “You do it! No, I do it! Wait, what day is it?”), until finally 94 minutes have passed (which in actuality is only 4 minutes but feels like 94) and you pull out of the driveway. I adore my children. But.

Perhaps given my children’s tendency to stallllllllll, or perhaps just because it’s a darling story from start to finish, I am totally taken with Jenny Offill and Chris Appelhans’ Sparky! (Ages 4-8), a new picture book about a girl’s ambivalence surrounding her pet sloth’s inability to perform on command (or, frankly, do much of anything). It’s a story we’ve heard before: child wants pet, but her mom doesn’t want to get stuck taking care of it, so they strike a deal which the mom thinks will put an end to the matter once and for all: “You can have any pet you want as long as it doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.” There is much about this little girl that calls to mind the lovable protagonist of Sophie’s Squash: persistence, independence, and the good sense to seek out answers to hard questions at your local library. When the Encyclopedia reveals that sloths “hang upside down in trees, barely moving, for long periods of time,” a new pet is born. (“My mother wasn’t happy, but a promise is a promise, I said.”) What is also true about sloths, as my children will tell you, is that they make the very slow climb down from their trees once a week to poop (this coming, of course, from our favorite poop book).

On the one hand, it’s a regular Ego Fest to play with a pet sloth: you get to make up all the rules, because there’s no one to push back, and you get to win at pretty much everything, because there’s not much participation (a sloth who rarely moves is predictably easy to find in Hide and Seek). But, as anyone who has ever had a pet (or a child) knows, there comes a day when the opportunity to brag or compare becomes too enticing to pass up. In this case, temptation comes in the form of know-it-all Mary Potts, who informs our narrator, “You can’t just invent a brand-new pet like that…A pet no one has ever had!” (Are you surprised to learn that Mary Potts has a cat that dances on her hind legs and a parrot that knows twenty words?) Our protagonist immediately plans a Trained Sloth Extravaganza, promising “countless tricks to mystify you,” then dons an upside-down colander on her head and a sheet around her shoulders and attempts to get her sloth to do canine-like things, like rolling over and speaking. You can see where this is headed.

Offill’s simple, declarative sentences have perfect comic timing, and Appelhans’ loose watercolor and pencil illustrations have a certain anonymity, encouraging children and parents alike to put themselves in the shoes of both girl and sloth. Young or old, we all know what it’s like to wish someone was a little bit different, even to try to change, mold, or control some tiny part of that person. But we also know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this judgment—to know that we are doing the best we can given who we are. Of course, like in any great picture book, none of these themes are spelled out or hammered into our heads. We simply watch as the girl puts away the chairs from the failed performance, offers Sparky a cookie (“he ate so slowly that I took it back again”), and then sits quietly alongside her pet to enjoy the setting sun. “You could hear all the neighborhood dogs barking. I reached over and tagged him on his claw. ‘You’re it, Sparky,’ I said. And for a long, long time he was.” Sometimes, when we slow down with our loved ones, do we enjoy them for exactly who they are.

Sparky! by Chris Appelhans

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