In Review: Sparks!

A romp of a read that has cats as dogs and aliens as toddlers battling over the Earth.

Sparks! by Ian Boothby & Nina Matsumoto

Published by Scholastic on February 27, 2018. Hardcover of 192 pages at $24.99 and softcover of 192 pages at $12.99. Intended for ages 7 – 10, grades 2 – 5. 

Note: I read an advanced copy so anything may have changed by publication.

The cover: Charlie has opened the top of the robotic Sparks suit, revealing himself and August to the reader. The look of joy on his face exemplifies his character, as does the look of shock on August. By holding the dog’s head up and showing the interior of the canine, Matsumoto has explained this book’s premise visually to the intended audience. Clever and fun. Overall grade: A

The premise: From the back cover, “August is a brilliant inventor who is afraid of the outside. Charlie is a crack pilot who isn’t afraid of anything. Together these pals save lives every day. They also happen to be cats who pilot a powerful, mechanical dog suit! Always eager to leap into danger, this feline duo have their work cut out for them as they try to thwart Princess, an evil alien bent on enslaving mankind. Don’t let the fact that Princess looks like a cute, diaper-wearing baby fool you. She’s clever, determined, and totally ruthless. So when Princess and the browbeaten fools she calls servants enact a brilliant and dastardly plan to conquer Earth, August and Charlie pull out all the stops to save the day.” This sounds like a fun book and I’m interested to see where the creators go with it. Overall grade: A

The characters: August is the short, round gray cat that created Sparks, the mechanical dog suit. She’s very smart and maintains the suit, though she’s not perfect. Something happened to her in her past that has her hiding under the sofa at times and unable to do something that every cat craves. Charlie is the pilot of Sparks. He’s a longer cat than August, and though intelligent, is a much more footloose and fancy free feline. He’s acts with his heart more than head, which causes conflict with August when they’re in action as their canine alter ego. Their banter is terrific and I could listen to the pair of them talk all day. They’re joined later in the book by Steve-O the squirrel, who has some mental issues but is a key figure in the book’s climax. He’s fun and all readers will enjoy his inclusion in this tale. The main villains of this tale are aliens from another world led by Princess, a human looking toddler child. Her tempter is as intense as a toddler’s, with her often punishing her two servants who are themselves disguised as worrisome parents of this angry child. They do all that they can to please her, but it will never be enough. Another threat to the cats is reporter Denise Densford who is investigating the hero dog that appears out of nowhere to save people. She begins the book as an ally, but slowly turns into one of the dog’s greatest critics. My favorite character of the book is the Cat Litter Box. It’s a robot, has its own personality, and does what it can to serve the cats. This character is incredibly charming and I just flat out loved him. Ian Boothby has done a great job in making all of these characters interesting and fun. Overall grade: A 

The settings: When the heroic felines have their base is neat, and I won’t spoil how they acquired it, but it’s completely plausible. Where the cats gained their super intelligence is a creepy place, though not so much as to terrify the intended audience. Immediately outside the cats’ base becomes a key plot point for one character and how it’s shown is wonderful. The book ends in the worst possible place for the heroes and it creates a great amount of tension for the reader because any number of threats could confront the kitties. Overall grade: A 

The action: The robotic dog suit isn’t the only source of action in this book, as the schemes by the aliens in disguise wreck havoc to find the cats, who have several moments where they have to accomplish tasks without the use of Sparks. The story goes into overdrive beginning on Page 140 and doesn’t let up until the end. This is a page turner of a book. Overall grade: A

The conclusion: The ending is hilarious, with Steve-O helping the cats in an unexpected way. This is followed by an epilogue from Litter Box showing what has happened to all the players and Sparks speeding off to help more people in danger. It can’t end with this one book — There needs to be more! Overall grade: A

The art: Nina Matsumoto is the artist of this book and she is terrific. She creates the silly and serious superbly. I love the serious and frightened looks that August has, the bugged out “whatever” looks on typical cat Charlie, the robotic look of Litter Box (I seriously need an action figure of him), the dippy, constant smile on Sparks, and the fury that explodes from Princess. Matsumoto captures motion well, with animals running and fighting, people challenging or chasing the animals, and the wonderful waving arms of Litter Box. Even when things gets serious, most often with August, the fear won’t overwhelm a reader; instead they’ll be rooting for the cat in every situation. Overall grade: A

The colors: David Dedrick is credited as the colorist and he does a great job. My review copy only had the first sixteen pages in colors, but I can tell that this work is solid. I like the colors of Charlie’s bugged out eyes, the bright colors of Sparks that make the dog an eye catching character, and the way sounds pop against the background. I like what Dedrick has done. Overall grade: A

The final line: A romp of a read that has cats as dogs and aliens as toddlers battling over the Earth. Terrific action and tender moments combine with delightful imagery. Perfect reading for those that suspect cats lead secret lives. Overall grade: A

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Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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