Otis and Rae is a book that I always enjoy recommending to other parents for two reasons – 1). It’s a fun read, and 2). it’s a relatively unknown title. I don’t know anyone else in my immediate circle who has it or has even heard of it, our whole county library system only has 4 copies of it, and even the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” suggestions on its Amazon page only has four other suggestions total (as opposed to the 17 pages of suggestions for other titles). So, yes, it gives me that heady hipster-esque rush that comes with saying “well, you probably haven’t heard of it”, which is a really repugnant, self-satisfied emotion to indulge in. But don’t take my horrific moral failings out on Otis and Rae. It’s a very cool picture book with some really interesting things going for it.
Published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin, Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk by Laura and Leo Espinosa is all about two best friends who set out on their “very first camping trip ever”, tramping out into the forest for a fun night of telling ghost stories and eating PB&B sandwiches. (Otis is a big fan of peanut butter and banana sandwiches.) Around the campfire, the ever-cheerful Rae tells stories of the mysterious Grumbling Splunk – a huge creature that grumbles like a freight train – who, apparently, haunts the nearby woods. The tales of the Splunk freak Otis out and, after he accidentally runs into the Splunk at night, Rae happily runs off in pursuit of the creature and Otis, in turn, runs off after Rae. The two friends eventually find the Splunk and realize that his size and tendency to grumble might have given them the wrong impression.
I discovered Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk at a new and used book sale at my office, and I immediately dug its design and format. The world of Otis and Rae evokes a design aesthetic that fans of Sanrio (i.e. Hello Kitty) or the cuter creatures of Hayao Miyazaki (think My Neighbor Totoro) should really enjoy, but the characters aren’t totally Japanese inspired. They just tap into that ultra-cute, big-head design school that Japanese pop culture does so well. Illustrator Leo Espinosa has found a way to really evoke that “cute balanced with hand-drawn personality” style that you can really see on display in Sanrio, Uglydolls, Nick Jr’s Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, or the stuffed animals at your local IKEA. If that aesthetic appeals to your child, they will really respond to this book.
The other thing that I really like about Otis and Rae is that it is a terrific hybrid of a picture book and a comic book. About 60% of the book is structured like a traditional picture book – illustrations with text above or underneath – and the rest uses the panel design, sound effects, and word balloon structure of a comic book. The format is really dynamic and engaging, and the simple, easy-to-read text makes this an excellent transitional title to help young readers get used to the comic format.
My daughter is getting more and more interested in comic books and, to be honest, with many comics, the format is too cluttered and the word balloon text is just too small for a learning reader to follow without getting easily confused. (As a parent, even though I LOVE comics, I’ll admit that trying to read those kinds of comics to your kid can be a real pain in the butt.) However, I think Otis and Rae introduces kids to the rules and structure of a comic book in a very gradual, clever way, showing off a design style that elegantly bridges the gap between picture books and comic books.
The art impresses more than the story, which is a goofy, warm-hearted mini-adventure with a fairly predictable outcome. Otis and Rae don’t have the personality of a Frog and Toad, an Elephant and Piggie, or a Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa, but they do occupy a fairly unique artistic landscape and they’re both pleasant enough that they never grated on my nerves. Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk is an example of a simple story told well. My daughter revisits Otis and Rae a lot- it really is a pretty dynamic read – and has asked on several occasions why there aren’t more Otis and Rae books, which, in and of itself, is a very decent compliment. There is definitely something to Otis and Rae that feels like the pilot of an animated series – a feeling that characters this cute were predestined to show up on a lunchbox somewhere – but I think the Espinosas deserve a lot of credit for the surprising sophistication of the book’s design. In my opinion, their picture book-comic book hybrid is a really excellent format for younger readers and I wish I had more similarly designed books to share with my daughter.
Last Minute Addendum: Funny I should mention that Otis and Rae felt like a cartoon pilot – according to the Espinosas’ website, in 2008, they inked a deal with the creators of Yo Gabba Gabba to develop Otis and Rae into a TV property. A quick search on YouTube found this short animated adaptation of the book. Check it out below. My first two thoughts are: 1). I can’t wait to show this to my daughter, and 2). I’m going to take the fact that the video has less than 500 views on YT as an affirmation of my “you probably haven’t heard of it” attitude towards the book, which… wow, really brings out the worst in me. That’s unfortunate.
THE DETAILS ON OTIS AND RAE AND THE GRUMBLING SPLUNK:
AGE RANGE: Per usual, the stated age range is kindergarten to third grade. But I think the story has a lot of appeal for Pre-K readers.
PAGE COUNT: Per usual, 32 pages
AUTHOR WEB SITE: Studio Espinosa, the creators’ design firm, does have a website, but it’s much more of a portfolio site for a freelance artist than a kids-friendly website for a children’s author. (It’s for parents and not for kids.) Studio Espinosa describes itself as “a renewable resource for art, design and creative development powered by Leo’s signature ‘neocomic’ style”… whatever that means.
BUY IT, BORROW IT, OR FORGET IT?: If you can find it at your library, I’d recommend borrowing it first. This is a book that will live or die on how well your kid meshes with its design aesthetic. If your child doesn’t gel with the format or like the character design, it might not be worth it. But, I will say, Otis and Rae is 1000% better than any Hello Kitty or Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! book I’ve ever seen.
IF YOU LIKED OTIS AND RAE AND THE GRUMBLING SPLUNK, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
- Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost In The World by James Kochalka – Kochalka is one of my favorite comic book creators (his Monkey vs. Robot graphic novel is EPIC) and he’s done an amazing job of creating some really original, compelling comics for kids. The Johnny Boo series is an odd little assortment of hardcover, 40-page graphic novels for young readers, which follow a friendly ghost and his ghost pet Squiggle as they have a series of silly adventures. In The Best Little Ghost In The World, Johnny and Squiggle make friends with the scary Ice Cream Monster – some obvious Otis and Rae parallels right there – and the relationships between the characters really shine thanks to Kochalka’s easy-to-read, but insightful dialogue. The range of emotions of his lead characters is really surprising and delightful, and kids will definitely dig in Johnny Boo‘s decidedly weird sense of humor.