March 12, 2019

Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life

Written by Beverley Brenna
Illustrated by Tara Anderson
Pajama Press
128 pp.
Ages 7-10
February 2019

Finding one’s own purpose in life is not an easy task and one which many of us never find. Imagine being a hamster in a cage in a pet store and wondering about what life holds for you. Is it just anticipating fresh bedding? Is it waiting for extra peanuts? Is it to find a forever home? Is it to be free?  But with the hamster’s adoption by nine-year-old Jeannie, the hamster, first known as Harvey Owens and then Sapphire, looks for that meaning and finds it with the help of a rich collection of characters and a few nibbles on fingers.

Told in the alternating voices of Sapphire and Jeannie, Beverley Brenna begins Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life with a long-awaited trip to the pet store for Jeannie’s promised Christmas gift of a hamster.  Though the visit almost doesn’t happen as Jeannie’s mother deems her daughter’s behaviour at the mall as inappropriate, Jeannie picks out the white hamster with the navy blue eyes and purchases all the materials to make his home perfect. But the hamster, whom she originally names Harvey Owens after her father who has moved out of the house, is frightened by the new sounds, smells and temperatures and lashes out by biting, even more so after they are involved in a car accident. Jeannie, who is dealing with her own stresses that include not being heard, a father who seems to be off with a new life and a mother struggling with two young children and trying to deal with her own grief and anger about her marriage, recognizes that the little guy bites when scared or surprised, and helps educate all who come near him to be considerate. And since he is such a great comfort to all of them–Jeannie, her brother Alistair, her mom and others–once they learn how to be kind to him, he has much to offer them back. And it makes no difference when he is identified as a her.

Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life is far greater than a story about a girl getting a pet hamster. It’s about struggling to find your place. Jeannie is a pretty good caregiver for Sapphire but she’s trying to figure out why her father isn’t keeping in touch, whether her parents are “getting put back together” (pg. 40), why her little brother seems stressed, how to be a friend, why her Mom’s new friend Anna Conda seems reserved though really cool, and the questions that kids want answered but no one will respect them enough to tell them the truth. Meanwhile Sapphire is recognizing how nice her new home is, singing when pleased, and beginning to understand freedom, especially after a dangerous escape outdoors in frigid January.
It seems to me that Free is just a little bit too big to think about for very long. (pg. 67)
It’s perfect that Jeannie’s story and Sapphire’s come together to become something bigger and better. Just as the two are better for having each other in their lives, Beverley Brenna’s text is enhanced with the adorable illustrations by Tara Anderson which head each of the forty-two chapters. Her pencil sketches of Sapphire make up the majority of these illustrations and show the little hamster eating, playing, sleeping, hiding and just being all-around cute. I had some trepidation about an animal story, especially one which begins in a pet store, but Tara Anderson’s charming artwork reassured me that Sapphire’s story would turn out well.

A perfect early reader for kids who love animals, Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life is actually more about giving significance to managing our own stories. It may require a nip or a bite or some yelling to be heard, or perhaps a snuggle or a quiet voice might be in order, but it's about finding the meaning of your own life, even if only for the time being.
From Sapphire the Great and the Meaning of Life by Beverley Brenna,               illustrated by Tara Anderson

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