January 18, 2018


Sparks! By Ian Boothby. Art by Nina Matsumoto. Color by David Dedrick. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

The Word Collector. By Peter H. Reynolds. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

     Start with a sentient Litter Box, and add – wait a minute. Adding anything to that start would seem ridiculous. And that is just what you get in Sparks! The story is ridiculous, with silliness piled on silliness and absurdity on absurdity, but Ian Boothby paces it so well and Nina Matsumoto illustrates it in so picture-perfect a manner that the graphic novel becomes a genuine page-turner and one heck of a lot of fun. Boothby throws just about every possible silliness into Sparks! Litter Box is the narrator. The story revolves around two cats who, thanks to a series of diabolical experiments, find they can perform heroic rescues as long as they do so from within a mechanical dog suit – because no one would believe that cats would bother to help humans, you know? The diabolical experiments are done by a couple of human-shaped aliens who are the servants of a powerful alien princess who looks exactly like a wide-eyed, adorable, diaper-wearing, cuteness-personified baby. The experiments cause August, the genius cat inventor of the suit, to become, you know, a genius, but the suit requires August to be in the back half operating the controls while a fearless pilot steers the thing from the front. That would be Charlie, the other freed-from-alien-captivity-and-experimentation cat. Unfortunately, a side effect of what has happened to the cats is that August is deathly afraid of going outdoors at all and doubly deathly afraid of ever touching the grass. And there’s more! There is an ambitious and completely wrongheaded reporter from “Channel 7 News” named Denise Denford, who keeps barely missing the “dog” rescues and therefore concludes that the “dog” is causing chaos rather than preventing harm; and there is another completely wrongheaded character, named Steve-o, who happens to be a squirrel and who is in league with the aliens – not because he is really bad but because he is wearing a helmet tuned to his DNA that forces him to do what Princess commands, which is invariably something evil. Princess has other ways of enforcing her demands, with most of those ways involving pain: her henchthings wear “pain pants” that she activates periodically, and when they question her, she gives them a “pain cookie” to eat. Princess has a “control ray” that makes Earth creatures obey her, and it works just fine on humans, but for some never-explained reason, she wants to use it on animals and have animals turn against human beings because that is, well, what she wants. Even her henchcreatures don’t quite understand this, but they don’t dare question anything she says – because when they eventually do turn against her, they end up as puddles of goo. Well, none of this makes a lick (ha, ha) of sense, and none of it has to, because it is so entertainingly ridiculous as to be ridiculously entertaining. And Boothby and Matsumoto are fortunate indeed to have David Dedrick as a colorist, because the colors he chooses for all the scenes and all the characters work just perfectly – especially when it comes to the adorably huge-blue-eyed, pink-wearing evil baby. And the robotic Litter Box is a real hoot, being the one who insists he will help August and Charlie don their special suit only if they “yell something cool like, CANINE CONFIGURATION COMMENCE!” This is quite a step up from being used to feed the experimental animals and offering to let them poop in him if necessary – which is how things start for Litter Box. Princess eventually gets her comeuppance, which is more like “go-uppance” (into a spaceship); but whether she returns for a sequel or Sparks (the “dog” operated by the two cats) returns for close encounters of a different kind, readers will certainly be hungry for more of the special kind of silliness here. Fans, follow further feline foolery!

     Words and pictures blend far more modestly in Peter H. Reynolds’ The Word Collector, but the illustrations here give the story more heart and more of a whimsical twist than it would otherwise have. It is the tale of a boy named Jerome who, unlike kids who collect coins, rocks or art, collects words. Bushels of them. He collects ones that catch his attention when people speak them, ones he sees printed in books or on signs, short ones and long ones. What gives this notion its charm is the way Reynolds shows Jerome reacting to words and interacting with them. For example, when he collects “multi-syllable words that sounded like little songs,” such as “geometry” and “wonderful,” we see him standing surrounded by several such words, his eyes closed, waving a stick as if conducting the words in perfect harmony. Reynolds does a wonderful job choosing words that Jerome collects, from ones whose meaning he does not yet know (aromatic, vociferous) to ones “whose sounds were perfectly suited to their meaning” (smudge, bellow). Jerome places his collected words in scrapbooks, more and more scrapbooks, so many that when he is carrying the books one day, he slips and the words scatter everywhere – in one of Reynolds’ most amusing illustrations. But now something wonderful happens, as Jerome notices that his collected words have fallen in jumbled fashion, so he now has interesting and unusual phrases such as “blue harmony” and “infinitesimal cloud.” Jerome is becoming a poet – indeed, that is exactly what he becomes through his word juxtapositions. And then he sets some of his poems to music. And on he goes, learning more and more about the power of words to express feelings, and coming to realize that “the more words he knew the more clearly he could share with the world what he was thinking, feeling, and dreaming.” That is an absolutely perfect formulation for young readers (and for adults, for that matter) of the reason to expand one’s vocabulary. Eventually, Jerome, a generous collector, decides to share his collection with the world, which he does by pulling a wagon on which rests a gigantic bag of words up a hill and setting the words free in the wind. And sure enough, he watches as the children below discover the words fluttering down from above and start their own word collections – leaving Jerome, now wordless, very contented indeed. This is a lovely story that feels like a fairy tale with a soft-pedaled moral about the importance of words and of learning in general. Reynolds tells it with warmth, a great deal of heart, and illustrations that beautifully complement the sentiments of the words he collects and chooses to share.

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