On a recent trip to Portland, OR, while perusing the best book store in the world, I stumbled upon Otter and Odder. I sat in one of the little red chairs in the kid’s section and read it quietly to myself. Three times. It’s worth more than three reads.
It’s hard to say what draws one to a unknown book amongst a mass of colorful choices. Usually the size or shape or, if you can see beyond the spine, the pictures. It definitely wasn’t the pictures in this one that first drew me to Otter and Odder (I don’t love art for kids that mimics kids’ art). Nor the size nor the shape. What it was–get ready for guilty confession– was the otter. Admit it, I’m not alone, otters pull on everyone’s heartstrings. I mean, come on, they float around holding hands while they sleep… So, I picked up Otter and Odder. And good thing too, because I haven’t fallen this hard for a book in awhile. Right away, the narrative steps in, gently excuses the drawings, and sweeps you away into a superb story. James Howe packs quite a punch. A slow, boulder-rolling-down-the-hill kind of punch. And it isn’t a punch. It’s more of a caress.
All that I’ve read on Otter and Odder likes to summarize it as so: a love story about how opposites can in fact overcome the expectations of normalcy and be together happily. And sure. It’s a story about an otter and fish falling in love and nobody thinking it a good idea. After all, otters eat fish. And to be honest, that’s probably enough to drive this book. Throw in the subtle moments of humor and Tao wisdom, and you’ve got an nearly bloodless Romeo and Juliet. But I think it only prudent to point out one more of Howe’s successes, my favorite.
Otter and Odder displays an awareness of itself as a story. It’s not subtly done or anything, but it’s there, an dip into the messy pool of reader’s expectations. As the story progresses, we come upon two false endings before we reach the real conclusion. Each is an “insert this kind of ending here, but wait- this isn’t that kind of story”. First, the “And they lived happily ever after” possibility. But no, not that kind of story. Then, “And they never saw one another again.” No, not that kind either. And then the end. A compromise of expectations, still happy, but tempered. Otter and Odder is a self-conscious narrative commenting upon itself as a narrative. And how cool is it that kids get introduced to the very thing all Lit majors pull their hair out about: the fact that a story is a contrivance? That it exists as a single manifestation of zillions of possibilities? And how cool is it as us to be reminded of this as something cool, even fun, rather than frustrating?
Perhaps this aspect doesn’t tickle your fancy. Well, in that case, as one final push for Otter and Odder, I’m gonna paraphrase my favorite part (can’t quote it, haven’t bought it yet). The turning point from “They never saw one another again” to “And they found a way to compromise and live happily together” is towards the end. The wise beaver is trying to help the sad, lonely otter. The beaver urges the otter to eat apples. When the otter says, “I don’t eat apples, you eat apples. Why would I eat an apple?” Then in a moment of self-righteousness: “Would you eat fish?” And the beaver replies, “I would if I were in love with an apple.” Come on. Awesome.