Otis Dooda: Strange but True is, as the author told me herself, a bit of a departure from Ellen Potter's usual middle grade fare (see my reviews of Olivia Kidney and The Kneebone Boy, and also, though I have not read it, Slob). Otis Dooda is a aimed squarely at six to ten year old boys (and even more specifically at Potter's eight-year-old son and his friends). It's a heavily, cartoonishly (in a good way) illustrated chapter book, with plenty of dialog, and (if the ARC is any indication) nice big print.
Otis Dooda is chock full of things that boys are likely to find humorous and/or cool. There is a horse disguised as a dog, with a propensity for really awful farts. There is a boy who lives in a potted plant, and casts curses on his neighbors. There is a catapult into a vat of marshmallow fluff. How does anyone think of such things?
But let me back up a bit. Otis Dooda is an elementary school-age boy who moves with his parents and older brother (and his brother's pet rat, Smoochie) from "a dinky little town called Hog's Head" to New York City. There, Otis finds himself living on the 35th (top) floor of an apartment building populated with unusual characters. He makes friends with some kids approximately his own age, learns to ride to subway, and worries about the curse that Potted Plant Guy has called down on his head.
There's a hint of a Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel to Otis Dooda, but Otis is aimed more directly at younger kids (younger kids read the Wimpy Kid books, but Greg Heffley is a middle schooler). Otis Dooda also has a much tighter narrative arc than the Wimpy Kid books, too, told in linear fashion over a five day period.
Let me give you a feel for Potter's writing in Otis Dooda.
""That's it, little man," Julius said to me. "Just put it out of your mind."
He gave my shoulder a quick squeeze.
I've seen that shoulder squeeze in movies. It's the shoulder squeeze people give to the guy who is about to walk into the Cave of Doom to fight the giant spider with the T. rex head and the mucus-dripping fangs. I'm sure you know which shoulder squeeze I mean." (The Curse of the Potted Plant Guy)
What I like about the previous quote is that you have the boy-friendly trappings, dinosaurs and mucus-dripping fangs and so on. But you also have something universally insightful. Can't you picture that shoulder-squeeze?This is what you get when you take an author who has written more traditional novels, but also has an actual 8 year old son, and a sense of humor.
Or take this:
"The subway zombies really freaked me out. Plus, I started thinking about how there were only four more days until the next full moon, and then I got even more freaked out. So when I came home I started working on my Lego inventions. That always calms me down. I think it's the way everything fits together so perfectly. I wish my life was more like that." (Psycho Weiner Blaster).
Ah, Otis, who doesn't wish that? Then he builds a Psycho Weiner Blaster and shoots soy weiners at a new (fortunately nimble) friend. I think you get the idea. While not all of the humor in Otis Dooda quite resonates with me as an adult female reader, I suspect that the target audience is going to love it.
Otis is a protagonist (I really can't call him a hero, exactly) who kids will be able to relate to. He declares himself "sort of average." He doesn't get along with his older brother. He gets made fun of, but not mercilessly. He learns from his mistakes (and they are over-the-top, hilarious mistakes, not at all "sort of average").
I have some slight concern that, as drawn by David Heatley, Otis might be a little too cute. Can you see him on the cover? Blond hair and big eyes and a little smirk on his face? I think he's adorable. Which may or may not resonate with your average 8 year old boy. Not to worry, though. His mom and brother are unattractive enough to create balance.
In all seriousness, though, the illustrations are perfect for the book, and perfect for an audience that might not be quite ready for non-illustrated novels. My favorite picture is a scene in which Otis has trouble sleeping (spooked by the Potted Plant Guy's curse). Four panels show Otis lying in bed, then dumping out a cardboard box, cutting eye holes in it, and then sitting in it on his bed, worried eyes visible. He's saying: "I hope there are no illustrations of this." Snort!
Setting out to make 8 year old boys laugh, as Ellen Potter has done here, is a great goal, I think. And I think that Otis Dooda: Strange but True succeeds in that goal (though I have no young boys on which to test that theory directly). I would say that Otis Dooda is a must-purchase for elementary school libraries. It's also well worth a look for parents trying to find the right book to hook their young boys on reading. I hope that it will be the first of a series. Highly recommended for the target audience (though perhaps not so appealing, for, say, 10 year old girls who like realistic fiction). I'll be keeping it on my list of gift books for boys.
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (@MacKidsBooks)
Publication Date: June 4, 2013
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author
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