Sparky. Sparky? Sparky!

Sparky!One of the books we gave our four-year-old daughter for her birthday was Sparky!, a mildly playful children’s book by Jenny Offill.

Does that author’s name sound familiar to you?

Jenny Offill is a noted children’s book author who is also the woman behind two books for adults, including the highly acclaimed Dept. of Speculation (2014). I reviewed it back in April. So did Mr. AMB, who, in Dept. of Speculation: Being Thirty-Something Sucks, called it “poignant, funny, and concise.”

The same could be said of Offill’s Sparky! It’s thoughtful, a little sad, mildly amusing, and sparse.

The story features a little girl who wants a pet. Her mother says, “You can have any pet you want as long as it doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.”

Somehow a sloth fits the bill (presumably, it feeds and hydrates itself from the leaves in the yard).* Based on the name of this animal alone, we can all guess how “exciting” this pet is. It sleeps all the time, just like the sloth my family sees at the zoo:

Two-Toed Sloth_Philadelphia Zoo

However, Offill’s fictional child hopes that her sloth, Sparky!, can be trained out of his slothful behavior. Will he adapt to meet her expectations—and earn the exclamation point beside his name–or will she learn to accept him as he is?

The lovely watercolor/pencil illustrations** that accompany Offill’s text and grace the jacket depict a far less controversial-looking sloth than the ones on the cover of Adam Rex’s Pssst!, which I discussed in Is This Book Adorable or “Lewd” and “Unsuitable for Small Children”? (a post that has led a number of people to this blog in search of information on “sloth sex,” as though I could possibly be an expert on the matter).

cover of sparky!I’ve spent quite a bit of time focused on the cover of Sparky!–which is the image to the left, not the one at the top of this post–because I use it to teach my youngest child about the difference between an exclamation point and a period.

First, I have her say the title of the book as it is, with the exclamation point. She bellows, happily, “Sparky!” Then, after I cover the vertical line with my hand, she says in a monotone and sometimes with a frown, “Sparky.” This goes on and on until one of us has had enough (usually me).

The day after we gave this book to our daughter, I came across a Huffington Post article, How The Exclamation Mark Went From :-O To ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, in which Maddie Crum writes:

“[H]istorically, the [exclamation] mark has been used for anything emphatic, be it silly or serious… [However] [t]he period has usurped the role of transforming a sentiment into something weightier — something more emphasized… [The exclamation] mark can be interpreted not as a yell or an interjection, but as a sort of textual smile.”

Just as our words and the ways we connect them are ever-changing, the marks we use to punctuate our written thoughts change over time too. Crum uses the example of a friend who says, resignedly, “I hate him!” when talking about a frustratingly uncommitted love interest. Replace the exclamation point with a period, and the sentence assumes a more serious, bitter tone.

Yes, the exclamation point often conveys a friendlier, lighter meaning than a period does. However, the exclamation point retains its serious connotation in certain contexts. For example, “I hate him!” standing alone sounds lighter than it would following a long string of how awful the guy is and a description of the steps the exclaimer has taken for revenge. The sentences contain the same words and the same exclamation point, but convey different messages.

In our digital world with ever-shrinking space for context, though, the exclamation point probably suggests light-heartedness more often than not.

So it goes! Or rather: so it goes. Is there a difference?

_____________________________________________________

*I reminded my daughter that sloths and other wild animals shouldn’t be pets!

**Chris Appelhans—whose signature includes an exclamation point—is the illustrator.

***Research suggests that women use exclamation points more often than men.

***If you’ve read Dept. of Speculation, you may be interested in the “spoilers-welcome” discussion at Socratic Salon.

23 thoughts on “Sparky. Sparky? Sparky!

  1. Pingback: On Sloths, Beer, & Venomous Creatures (That Aren’t Poisonous) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. I am always impressed by authors who can write books for children and for adults with equal skill. I love grammar and now I’m going to be keeping an eye out for the ways in which people are using their exclamation points. 🙂

    1. I’m also really impressed by authors who can write great books for different audiences. Jenny Offill is a very talented writer! (Of course, I had to add an exclamation point! And another one…)

  3. Who couldn’t love a sloth, and I am enchanted with the illustrations and absolutely must find this book… yes, the exclamation makes all the difference – good to find the humor in our moments of humanity. And have only just gotten Dept. of Speculation…. maybe will need to read both together 😀

  4. I love this post! I have read Sparky and didn’t realize she was the author of Dept of Speculation, too. I am amazed at people who can write in such a variety of styles. And I learned about sloths and exclamations points in this post. Amazing!

    1. Thank you! Jenny Offill is a very impressive writer. Each year, I choose a children’s book as the gift I give to all the children in my life. This year, it’s Sparky!

  5. As an editor, I can say the exclamation mark, used sparingly, is okay. But there are quite a few authors who overuse it, banging every sentence in a paragraph of dialog. Then it becomes melodramatic and unacceptable. My comment in the margin: “Why is everyone screaming all the time?”

    😉

  6. Intriguing thoughts on the mix and matching of the exclamation mark and full stop (period).

    On seeing your title AMB I fully expected to read about Sparky’s Magic Piano which I recall being a favourite on Children’s Hour on a Saturday morning back in the days of radio 🙂

  7. I thought Sparky is an odd name for a sloth, so the exclamation point seems apt. In Costa Rica I saw sloths and boy are they slow. I passed a tree when the sloth was at the bottom in the morning and by late afternoon, it was barely up the tree. They seem like they would be a predators dream prey.

    1. Your comment makes me realize just how little I know about sloths. I have no idea what preys on them (but I will Google that shortly!). The sloths we have today have been “selected,” so their slow speed hasn’t held them back.

  8. Gahhhh we just walked back in from the library and I knew there was a children’s book I forgot to look for – this was it! Should have read your post this morning. 😉
    I love exclamation marks, probably a bit too much. I’m always having to go back and tone it down a bit.

    1. I love exclamation points too! I try to keep it to only one or two in any piece of writing, though.

      I hope you and your daughter enjoy Sparky. It’s subdued, but interesting.

  9. I’ve never thought about this in great detail before, but I must have internalized it somewhere along the line; my internal voice read “so it goes!” about two octaves higher and in a much chirpier voice than “so it goes.” I do have a bad habit of using exclamation points everywhere, especially in professional emails – I’ve sent out Thank You’s to professors where every sentence is punctuated with one of them. Maybe it’s time to reassess.

    1. I always have at least one exclamation point, even in professional emails (usually the “thanks!” at the end). It conveys a level of friendliness expected of women but not of men. I have a gender neutral first name (at least in the US), and I’m pretty sure people would assume I’m a man if I didn’t use any exclamation points. I’d be fine with that.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  10. SF

    I love this post!

    I love this post.

    Both sentences mean the same thing, in this context. It’s neat to think about our punctuation. It’s a tough thing to teach the little ones, I’ve found. They don’t understand why it isn’t in the alphabet.

    1. Thanks. I mean: Thanks!

      It hasn’t been easy to teach punctuation to my children. Until recently, one of my twins always put a very large period after her name, and my youngest one reads the letters in a word and always adds the mark at the end: “S-P-A-R-K-Y explanation point.” She calls it an “explanation point” about 50% of the time.

  11. I really enjoyed this post! 🙂

    I must confess that I am a closet punctuation junkie… I find it fascinating that the “rats and mice” between the serious creatures, our words, can make such a difference in the meaning, tone and intent of our written communication.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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