As most of you know, some of my favorite books are picture books. I read them, collect them and write them. I’m pretty much passionate about them. The form seems simple to those who do not study the genre, but picture books can be one of the most difficult types of books to create. Young readers are some of the most discriminating, and keeping them informed and entertained is a big job. So when I find a picture book that I think works in every sense of the word I like to share it with my readers.
Not long ago I was at a literature conference with some of my writer friends and I ran across SPARKY! (written by Jenny Offhill and illustrated by Chris Appelhans, Schwarts & Wade Books, 2014). It was love at first sight.
My Sloth Obsession
In the past few years I’ve developed a deep love and admiration for…the sloth! These amazing creatures spend most of their lives in trees, and if you’re not paying attention, you can completely miss their slow and purposeful movements when they happen (and that’s not often.) Sloths have permanent smiles on their faces. They make the cutest little noises and love a snack of hibiscus flowers whenever they can get their very long claws on them. The sloth is the master of taking it easy, and in this world of instant everything, I find these creatures quite refreshing (and strangely cute).
SPARKY is a sloth, but he’s not just any sloth. He’s the perfect pet for the heroine in the story. When a little girl wants a pet, she’ll say almost anything to get her parents to agree. Even if that means finding a pet that “doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.” Enter SPARKY!
Why SPARKY! Works
SPARKY! works as a practically-perfect picture book because we know exactly what the story is about in the first line. The girl at the center of the tale says it in four words: “I wanted a pet.” Not only do those four words grab a young reader who has the same thing or her mind, but they also grab any adult who remembers what it’s like to be that little girl or boy and want a pet more than life itself.
SPARKY! also works because the most unlikely pet in the world is the one she chooses. Hey, it fits the criteria her mother sets exactly. So of course it’s the answer to her dreams. Kids are literal creatures, and if you tell them to find a pet that doesn’t need to be walked, watered or otherwise entertained, they will.
SPARKY! has simple illustrations which match the tone of the sloth perfectly. There’s just enough color to make the story feel warm and inviting but not too flashy. After all, the need to keep it all as sloth-like as possible is important. Warm browns, soft blues, a splash of pale red here and there and the illustrator sets the perfect stage for the simple and direct text. SPARKY! is a perfect marriage of word and picture.
And does the girl in the story love SPARKY even though those around her cannot see what she sees? Of course she does. Children love simply and completely, especially when the object, person or pet is underappreciated by others.
So hats off to SPARKY! A lovely story of an unlikely friendship that starts with a simple statement true for almost every child…”I wanted a pet!”
Sensibility- A well-written picture book can speak to readers of all ages.
Sense- Spend time studying picture books and learn all you can about the genre before ever attempting to write one. You owe it to your audience to get it right.
What recent picture book have you read? Did you like it? Why or why not?