Reading Otis

The first book that took wing between my child and I was Loren Long’s Otis, a beautiful story about the loyalty that binds a red tractor (Otis) and a young calf. Long has written and illustrated several Otis volumes, and illustrated many other children’s books besides.

We started reading the board book edition of Otis when my child was about 6 months old. I can’t say for sure why this book captured my child’s imagination as it did at that age. But I think the story’s emotional range had a lot to do with it.

We meet Otis, a red tractor who works and plays hard, and the young calf who becomes his dearest companion. The mood is generally upbeat as Long introduces the characters and the farm. But other emotions are at stake, too, as when the calf arrives on the farm afraid and disoriented, but finds comfort in Otis’s mechanical snore.

When the farmer buys a new tractor, Otis is forgotten by all but the calf. These few pages are incredibly powerful. I can’t read them aloud without a sad downturn of voice and respectful hush. Otis’s detached expression, and the debris that gathers on him over time, underscore his grief at becoming obsolete. The calf’s sadness is palpable as she sits loyally by her unmoving friend.

When the calf falls into mortal danger, the farmer’s efforts to help only make things worse. A vulture waits patiently in a nearby tree — a small detail that will give the story deeper meaning as my child gets older. All seems lost until Otis, moved to action by love and loyalty, draws the calf out of harm’s way. In doing so, Otis affirms his importance to the farm.

The range of feeling my child intuits (I think) in Long’s evocative paintings, and in the shifting mood of my voice, may yet spur important conversations about friendship and loyalty as my child gets older. I especially appreciate Long’s willingness to explore a full range of emotions, from joy to grief, and even the possibility of death. Hopefully these qualities will make Otis a continuing resource as my child’s emotional world unfolds.