Playing with traditional proverbial sayings such as “elephants never forget,” and contemporary health concerns such as peanut allergies, Bill Slavin has created an endearing, if slightly obtuse, character in Otto the Elephant. The author/illustrator, in a private interview with some of my university students, stated that this book and series began because he likes to draw elephants. While sitting at a comic book convention waiting to sign autographs, he started to sketch an elephant that eventually grew into Otto. The story itself grew out of discussions with his wife, Esperanca Melo, while going for walks together: an organic elephant story? Slavin marries this love of drawing elephants with echoes of classic children’s stories resonating throughout his story.
Georgie, Big Otto’s missing chimpanzee friend, has been taken, not by the Man in the Yellow Hat from the Curious George series, but by a much feared man with a wooden nose. Otto and his friend Crackers, a parrot-shaped Jiminy Cricket character, leave the safety and familiarity of the jungle to follow the trail to the big city of New York. Mayhem, misunderstandings and mystery follows the duo as they experience the big city for themselves. And since Georgie has not been found by the end of this first volume of the series, readers will be following them to New Orleans in their next adventure. Slavin’s acknowledged appreciation of the Asterix series comes through in his pacing of this story.
Slavin explained to my students that he thinks of himself as an illustrator first and this does come through when reading this book. His colourful, lush, expressive illustrations are more effective than the text in relating the adventure. The variety of greens in the first few pages offers the reader a window into the lush environment of the jungle, Big Otto’s natural home. The subsequent use of various greys and yellows evoke the urban setting and the amount of detail included in these panels creates an environment far, far from their comfort zone. The era of the story seems a bit problematic to this reviewer; there are numerous echoes to the 1990s but, at the same time, suggests a time period that includes more contemporary innovations such as email and texting. However, as it is a story about talking animals sharing the page with humans, this is but a minor perplexity.