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Review of the Day: Big City Otto by Bill Slavin

Big City Otto: Elephants Never Forget
By Bill Slavin
With Esperança Melo
Kids Can Press
ISBN: 978-1-55453-476-0
Ages 8-11
On shelves now

Boy, The Man With the Yellow Hat just lost all credibility, didn’t he? Time was that Curious George snatcher could nab the jungle beast of his choice, slap his hands together, and call it a day. These days, though, readers don’t take too kindly to fellows who go about grabbing the next spare primate they set their sights on. Various children’s authors have dealt with him one way or another (Furious George Goes Bananas by Michael Rex comes most immediately to mind). Big City Otto takes the idea from an entirely different bent. What if George left a friend behind? And what if that friend was an elephant? The result is something along the lines of Babar by way of Mowgli setting off on a mission to rescue Curious George. With a parrot sidekick. Can’t believe I almost forgot the parrot sidekick.

Otto the elephant is depressed. No two ways about it. You’d be pretty depressed too, mind you, if your best buddy and practically step-brother, Georgie, was up and kidnapped by some crazed man with a wooden nose and a sack. After sighing and crying over his friend’s disappearance, Crackers the parrot convinces Otto participate in a kind of a crazy scheme. Clearly Georgie was kidnapped and taken to America so all they’ll have to do is go to the U.S., find him, and rescue him. Trouble is, it’s not that simple. There’s the getting there from Africa part (extra large cargo, anyone?), finding friendly folks who can help out, interviewing zoo animals, and more. But when Otto and Crackers fall in with a pack of crocodiles with ulterior motives, locating one little monkey is the least of their problems.

In his little bio attached to this book author/illustrator Bill Slavin says he is in “Millbrook, Ontario, surrounded by his well worn Asterix collection.” The Asterix influence is indeed felt in this work. Not so much the artistic style, mind you, but definitely the pace. Never lagging, always upbeat, “Otto” makes for a quick read. And really, it was the art that attracted me to this book in the first place. Slavin’s style manages to encompass all kinds of settings and characters with ease. It can’t be simple to try to replicate the big city’s feel. You’d end up drawing sheer amounts of people more than anything else. But Slavin paces himself, and the reader could be forgiven for concentrating primarily on Otto anyway. He’s a big lovable lummox. One that’s hard to look away from.

Of course the time period is a bit of a mystery. As I see it, there are two possible reasons why this book appears to be set in 1993. Reason #1: Slavin originally wrote the book in that year and saw little reason to update it to the current day. Reason #2: He just really really likes that time period. That’s why you see two Dennis Franz & Jimmy Smits lookalikes, complete with archaic computers, acting like pachyderm-obsessed Inspector Javerts. Or why you have an alligator dressed like Flavor Flav blasting hip-hop (aww… remember hip-hop?). Sure there might be a mention of email once in a while, but for the most part we’re practically in historical fiction territory here.

By the way, I should warn you that for all that we’re dealing with a quest novel of a sort, Otto doesn’t actually locate Georgie by the story’s end. Indeed, kids hoping for a happy reunion should be advised that in spite of the fact that there isn’t a gigantic “1” emblazoned on its spine, Big City Otto is just the first in a series. I’ve no doubt that kids who reach the end of this book and find, to their horror, that Georgie is still AWOL will start clamoring about your ankles, insisting that you get them the next installment. Consider this a quest novel for those readers still a bit too young for Bone and Amulet.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.