Thursday, November 1, 2012

Otter and Odder: A Love Story

By James Howe
Pictures by Chris Raschka
Candlewick, 2012
$14, ages 6 and up, 40 pages.

Just as Otter snatches a fish from the river, he realizes the fish is quite a catch -- and he'd rather love her than eat her.

But can an otter date his food source? And if he does, can he still eat her family?

In this perfect little picture book, an otter known simply as Otter and fish called Myrtle try to figure out how to love each other in a world where straying from the food chain just isn't done.

Otters eat fish and fish just want to get away, that's the way of the world.

Suppose, though, that Otter found something else to satisfy his hunger. Could such a love then exist?

Author James Howe speaks so sweetly and earnestly on the pair's behalf that readers may feel they'll burst if these two don't work things out.

The moment Otter looks into Myrtle's "round, sweet, glistening eyes" he knows, in an adorably roundabout way, that he's found true love: "he knew that he had found what he had not known he was looking for."

For Myrtle, love is slower to come. First, survival instincts kick in and she tells herself to slip away as fast as she can. But then Myrtle sees how Otter looks at her and her own "tremulous" heart awakens too.

His eyes reflect back "the sparkling river" and reveal a "tender and lonely heart," and soon they're inseparable. They swirl about each other, playing hide-and-seek and silently considering the stars in the sky.

But as they swim they hear whispers that are hard to ignore. Other creatures in the water think a mixed-species relationship is a bad idea: It's unnatural for Otter to love the very creature he eats, they say. "He was always odd. Now he's odder."

Soon doubts cloud the couple's hearts and they start to believe what they're hearing.

Otter wonders aloud to Myrtle if their romance could be wrong and Myrtle's eyes appear to fill with tears ("though it was hard to tell since her eyes were always wet"). Then in a little voice, she tells him she can no longer swim with him if the otter's way is to eat fish.

Otter's insides seize up and Howe make us feel him wobble. A reed leans into Otto and braces him for what he doesn't want to hear. In a whisper, Otter asks Myrtle, "Do you no longer love me?" and she sadly replies that she no longer thinks she can.

But could a wise Beaver show Otter that there other things out there -- vegetarian sorts of things -- that could fill his belly as well as a fish could?

Illustrator Chris Raschka's art floats about the page, arcing here, twirling there, like the exhilarating feeling of love.

Water sweeps up and down in translucent brushstrokes, and Otter and Myrtle swim around each other like dance partners mirroring the other's moves.

Their bodies are each a single continuous line of pastel that shifts as they swim. At times Otter's body loops around like a circle of string that's been twirled into figure eights -- as if he were winding up with longing.

Howe's writing draws out the innocence of their love and makes the pair irresistible. When Otter asks Myrtle her name, she says Gurgle, but because he has water in his ears from the river, he thinks she says "Myrtle" and so that becomes her name.

This is a book with a big heart and a wonderful message -- love who you love and don't let anything get in your way (even if that someone is the very thing you love to eat).

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