Tales of trash and timbales

February 18th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,

Otis Takes a Job
Two Picnic Surprises for Otis
Otis and the Field Day
by Guilherme Bistecca. (Spanner Juvenile, 2008–2009)

The “anthropomorphized truck” subgenre of juvenile literature is certainly oversaturated, and this reviewer’s longstanding opinion is that it is difficult to improve on classic tales like Demosthenes Upsall’s Ack, Another Delivery!, which features an iconic (albeit trademark-scrubbed) brown truck at the end of a long day, or Kensym Mooch’s That Is Not Yet A Pile of Sand, in which a dump truck confronts the Sorites paradox head-on. However, the protagonists of these tales are fully-grown and have entered their vehicular vocations.

otis.png Guilherme Bistecca’s Otis series focuses instead on the day-to-day life of a young anthropomorphized truck (the titular Otis) and his parents, who live in a nondescript ranch house in what appears to be a medium-size town. Otis and his parents have adventures that are sure to be well-known to families with kindergarden or primary-school age children, and indeed Otis often appears to be a little boy in the form of a garbage truck.

The conflicts in these tales revolve around familiar tropes: growing up too fast (Otis Takes a Job, in which he elects to do his father’s trash route and discovers that he is not up to the task), problem solving and care of the environment (Two Picnic Surprises for Otis), and the happy synergy between friendship and sportsmanship (Otis and the Field Day). Many solutions to the problems in these stories seem almost cravenly targeted to the sensibilities of young boys: there is almost no dilemma that cannot be solved by the introduction of a good nap, a bowl of ice cream, or some friendly construction equipment (including a literal deus ex machina when two cranes come to the rescue in one of the Picnic Surprises).

Otis is a likable and recognizable character, though, and his parents are depicted as intelligent and worthy of respect — a delightful contrast to the buffoonish adults in most contemporary children’s fiction. (Apparently, Spanner Juvenile has already begun marketing Otis-branded products; my press kit included an adult-sized t-shirt with the Otis image above and a toddler-sized sweatshirt with a similar image.)

Recommended for toddlers and young children, especially truck-fascinated little boys.

The Unhappy Okapi Practices the Timbales
by Søren and Trine Tyggegummi. (Arbitrary Haus, 2009)

Critics will surely regard 2008 as Søren Tyggegummi’s annus mirabilis. The Arturo, Zoltan, and Gabor characters have made their way onto a staggering range of licensed products. His From Arturo to Zoltan: An Unhappy Okapi Encyclopedia has been a remarkable commercial success despite receiving a great deal of critical derision. (In fact, your scribe has it on good authority that the midnight launch party alone resuscitated one troubled bricks-and-mortar bookseller.) Tyggegummi’s personal life seems to be bright as well: after weeks of nagging rumors, he shed his “international children’s-book-authoring playboy” image, wedding Norwegian bubblegum chanteuse Trine Magnussen in a private ceremony last July.

The former Miss Magnussen joins her new husband in writing this latest effort, which is apparently their attempt to fuse the burgeoning subgenre of Carribean-percussion-themed children’s fiction with the Unhappy Okapi universe. Mrs. Tyggegummi’s musical aspirations — and alas, also her musical capacities — are on full display in this volume, which includes thirty-six full pages of sheet music and a code for digital downloads of several songs involving characters and situations from the familiar Arturo and Zoltan canon.

The story itself is roughly up to the standards that we have come to expect from recent installments in the Unhappy Okapi series, and the illustrations are a welcome change from the coarse and derivative images that defined the Albrecht era. However, the story’s heavy reliance on sung dialog and the hypnotic afro-Caribbean Nyahbinghi rhythm may make it difficult for some parents to read to their children. Furthermore, the near-total absence of narrative conflict (Arturo wants to get better at the timbales, so he practices; end of story) may prove ultimately disappointing for more sophisticated children. Nevertheless, this title is recommended for young toddlers, especially those who have shown disproportionate interest in percussion instruments.

See these, in order, if you have no idea what’s going on here: 1, 2, 3.