This “palindrama” is a graphic novel formed from the attempt to create a story featuring 200 palindromes, and no other words at all. Many of the palindromes are borrowed from other authors, credited in the end notes. The result is a somewhat disjointed story, tied together by a dream motif.
The adventure begins when Otto’s parents call him to dinner. As he stares into his bowl of wonton soup, his mind drifts to a day at the beach which soon becomes fantastical as an emu sails by and a rat walks past with a boogie board. These devices allow for the inclusion of palindromes like, “Was it a rat I saw?” The story takes every twist and turn typical of a fever dream, with Otto wandering through various scenes, sometimes in pursuit of his dog, through city streets, art museums, a cemetery, a desert, and elsewhere. He ends up back home at the dinner table.
With such limited dialogue, the illustrations are particularly important for assembling meaning from the story. In fact, some of the illustrations are part of the game, as many of the palindromes included are written into the illustrations, rather than spoken as dialogue. The names of businesses displayed on trucks and buildings are all palindromes. There is also a clever usage of call-backs in the dream as the toys and furnishings from Otto’s bedroom reappear as characters, having come to life in Otto’s imagination. Agee’s illustration style, full-color in somewhat muted shades with visible outlines, has an approachable and youthful quality, which gives a whimsical feel to the book. Emotion is communicated clearly on the faces of Otto and the other characters, despite their simple structure.
The value in this book is in the cleverness of carrying the palindrome device all the way through and making a story out of it, more so than in the story itself. However, the effect is also to disrupt the reader’s normal process which has some beneficial effects. Readers are challenged to stop and consider each phrase in the book to make sure it is indeed a palindrome. Since each bit of text must communicate a great deal more than it ordinarily would, the reader is forced to read this book more slowly than a typical graphic novel, which also creates the tendency to view the pictures more carefully. Finally, there could be various meanings drawn from the book’s conclusion, which would make for interesting discussion for students mature enough to delve into them.
Otto has many possible applications in a classroom setting. It could be used to encourage students to create their own palindromes and build a story around them. A variety of discussions around literary devices and symbolism are also possible, however the elements included are first and foremost palindromes before they are symbolic. This book is like a fairy tale in form, and like many fairy stories for children, older readers may draw deeper meanings from it. Agee has brought more to this work than a fun attempt to create a story made of palindromes, and Otto may prove to be a noteworthy, if unusual, example of children’s literature for many years to come. This book would make a worthwhile addition to collections for older children and teens.
Otto: A Palindrama
By Jon Agee
Penguin Random House Viking Books for Young Readers, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: Middle Grade (8-12)
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)