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Richie's Picks: OTIS
on October 8, 2009
"There once was a friendly little tractor. His name was Otis, and every day Otis and his farmer worked together taking care of the farm they called home. Otis liked to work.
Recalling his own childhood love for some classic picture books, Loren Long pays homage to the work of Robert Lawson and Virginia Lee Burton in OTIS.
OTIS is the story of a boisterous and dependable little red tractor who (as was Mary Anne the steam shovel), is facing being replaced, and the young calf (visually reminiscent of the young Ferdinand) who comes to live at the farm and is comforted at night by the "soft putt puff puttedy chuff" that emanates from Otis's stall.
Young readers will readily recognize a whole series of positive emotions depicted on the face of Otis as he works, plays, sleeps, teaches the calf to do a "hand"stand, and sits contemplatively under the tree on the hill (total shades of Ferdinand) alongside his young friend. Then there are the equally-clear expressions of negative feelings that well up when the new-and-improved giant tractor suddenly invades Otis's farm.
Otis is unmercifully banished from his stall and consigned to a patch of weeds behind the barn. But when the calf accidentally gets herself stuck in Mud Pond (with an attendant cast of characters reminiscent of the crowd that observes Mary Anne digging the cellar for the new town hall), there is only one person...err...faithful friend and personified machine...who knows how to help the calf get herself unstuck.
As with the cover art, Loren Long's illustrations throughout the first part of OTIS are soothing, being dominated by gentle browns, creams, and the deep cherry red of the little tractor. In sharp contrast, the new tractor is a glaring and intrusive shade of yellow with sharp lines and a visage that gives off no hint of humanity inside.
Fortunately, the calf's rescue causes Otis to once again be recognized as being of value. He is assigned a series of satisfying tasks around the farm and, having thus regained a good measure of contentment through being productive, "at the end of the day, Otis would just sit with his friend under the apple tree and watch the farm below."
What makes OTIS extra-special is that on top of there being such a great interplay of text and illustration, on top of Loren Long's great use of figurative language and visual allusion, and on top of the important intergenerational theme, there is a high level of action and hijinx in the text and illustrations -- call it a "gross motor" book -- that will enthuse the most demanding members of any young audience.
I'm just hoping that they are considering printing up some Otis teeshirts for those of us who are totally in love with this crazy little tractor dude and his bovine sidekick.