Book reviewed: Otto The Owl Who Loved Poetry – Vern Kousky, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2015
There is whole category of children’s books about owls with a kind of sleep disorder; they want to stay awake in the daytime, when nocturnal animals should be fast asleep. There are obvious challenges to socializing when most other species are not awake. Some of the most endearing examples of these stories are the Little Owl books by Divya Srinivasen, and Brian Won’s Hooray for Today!
In Otto the Owl who Loved Poetry, Vern Kousky has created a more anxious and insecure creature, one whose circadian rhythm problem is exacerbated, but finally resolved, by his literary creativity. Kousky is both author and illustrator of Otto’s tale. His portrait of a sleepless owl who finds both himself and friends by writing poems, may speak to parents more than to children.
We meet Otto perched on a branch, enclosed in a crescent moon against a very dark sky. He looks upset. No wonder, because “Otto is not like the other owls of the forest.” When others are sleeping, he prefers to read books, although even this activity doesn’t seem to make him happy, judging by the picture of him immersed in a volume of Keats. Worse, he doesn’t want to hunt mice, but to make friends with them. Otto’s peaceful nature makes him a literary heir to Ferdinand, but without the bull’s rejection of fame.
When Otto begins to recite poems to himself, the other owls mock him as “Blotto the Bard.” Now you need to explain to the child with whom you are sharing the book what at “bard” is, and why Otto’s fellow creatures are so mean. But you can truthfully reassure them, because soon Otto looks at the beautiful moon and composes his first original poem. His new mice friends become an enthusiastic audience, both for Otto’s own works and for lines by T.S. Eliot, Joyce Kilmer, and Christina Rossetti. At the conclusion of the book, there is a list of lines and the poets who wrote them; all unattributed poems are by Otto/Kousky. Here is one that will not overshadow “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”
“Dear Moon, you must be lonely
so high up in the sky.
I’m sure your heart’s so heavy,
sometimes you want to cry.”
You can be fairly sure that most young children will prefer Otto’s poem to Eliot’s, although Rossetti’s “Who Has Seen the Wind?” may appeal to them as well. The question about a book of this type, which clearly is intended to appeal to adult readers with a certain amount of irony, is if it is worthwhile for kids. I would say yes, if, like the jokes of Sesame Street, it works on both levels without patronizing picture book readers. Otto is isolated, insomniac, and maybe a little depressed, but a bit of a Romantic figure, as well. Adults may relate. Children may be gratified to learn that there are other creatures who like Otto and appreciate his special talents. Whether they will understand why poetry makes him different, and the object of derision, or why Emily Dickinson believes she is “nobody,” remains a question. Test-read it with your child and see what happens.