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