Icy Sparks, the 10-year-old girl with the yellow ocher eyes and floss-like hair prone to cursing and croaking, has a problem. When she feels like rubber bands are about to pop her eyes, and her body twitches with the urge to jerk, she escapes to the root cellar to release the quirks. Her control, however, is limited, and when her classmates and teacher react with cruelty and dismay, colorful and sassy Icy retreats to a world of humiliation.
Plot Overview: Ignorance, Humiliation and Friendships
In Act One, Icy struggles to negotiate her goodness and her badness (the uncontrollable cursing, the misinterpretations and exaggerations, the tics and jerks). Her relationship with her peers – with the exception of outsiders Peavy Lawson and Lane Carlson – deteriorates, and her teacher, Mrs. Stilton, revels in demeaning the fiery fourth grader. After one intense outburst, Icy is relegated to the supply closet to study alone. She arranges the closet (and arranges her mind in the process), but when her advocate, the school principal, attempts to rearrange the order, Icy snaps.
Icy soon finds herself in a mental hospital. Although Wilma, a hospital nurse, is as malicious and ugly as Mrs. Stilton and Icy is homesick for her loving Matanni and Patanni, she develops a friendship with staff member Maizy. Despite the traumatizing stay, Icy also puts her problems in perspective; her croaks are minor compared to how the other children in the hospital suffer. Her doctor gives her coping tips, and the older and wiser girl returns home to the mountains of West Kentucky.
As a teenager, Icy lives in isolation. She’s kept in touch with Maizy, and her good friend, morbidly obese Miss Emily, goes to the house every week to teach. The teenager, though, is thirsty for company, for puppy love, but her anxiety keeps her alone and lonely. It’s only when Miss Emily and Matanni drag her to a tent revival that Icy taps into what makes her different – and special.
Criticisms and Compliments
Icy Sparks has one of the most unique, vibrant voices in literature. Her narrative, her use of colloquialisms and her range of emotions breathes life into a story that, from the book jacket, doesn’t sound that appealing. But the tale of a young girl struggling with undiagnosed Tourette Syndrome is fascinating, more so because of the spotlight author Rubio sheds on ignorance and cruelty.
Despite its achievements (Icy is one of the most striking characters in the last several years), some of Rubio’s descriptions are a little too self-indulgent, to the point that the people of Appalachia are caricatures. More importantly, the ending is too pat. Icy, the complex, spirited “frog girl of Icy Creek,” struggles with her pops and croaks, her good side and her mean side, only to find it all cured by Jesus. What? That’s it? She goes to a tent revival, and ta-da, the insecure and isolated girl is saved and accepts herself fully? That’s not enough for a story that weaves Icy’s misery through three acts of nescience. More so, Icy’s diagnosis, her experience at college, surrounded by others around whom she may not be able to control her tics, is glossed over. Only the epilogue touches on Tourette Syndrome and Icy’s musical abilities.
For such a well-written book, and for such a great protagonist, the ending of Icy Sparks is a disappointment, but it is still worth a read.
- Rubio, Gwyn Hyman. Icy Sparks. Penguin Books, 2001 ISBN 9780142000205