CM . . . . Volume XX Number 13 . . . . November 29, 2013
Big Top Otto is the second title in the graphic novel series "Elephants Never Forget" by award-winning author/illustrator Bill Slavin. Big Top Otto picks up where the first title, Big City Otto, ended. Otto, the elephant, with the help of his friend Crackers, the parrot, is making his way across America in search of Otto's dear friend Georgie, the chimpanzee, who was kidnapped from the jungle by the Man with the Wooden Nose. Their journey is filled with hijinks as Otto and Crackers make their way across the southern United States in search of the Punkratz and Pinky Travelling Circus where they think Georgie might be. Quite often Otto and Crackers get into trouble as they look for their friend, and on more than one occasion Otto's peanut allergy and Crackers' quick thinking help them get out of a difficult situation. When they finally find the circus, Otto learns that Georgie was too talented and has left for Hollywood with an animal actor agent. Otto is also approached by an agent, and the story ends with Otto's making his way to Hollywood to star in movies and continue his search for Georgie. The story is scheduled to continue in Big Star Otto.
The illustrations were created with pen and ink lines and coloured in Photoshop. The full colour design throughout captures the attention of young readers. Children will enjoy the comedic style, the fast pace and the slapstick action. On average, each page features five to six action packed panels which are filled with dialogue and narrative boxes. The plot moves at a frenetic pace, and the story feels crowded. Within 88 pages Otto has at least ten different misadventures in his search for Georgie and the Punkratz and Pinky Travelling Circus. As a result, the storytelling suffers because the reader spends little time with the secondary characters. Furthermore, at times the writing was heavy-handed, and it was clear that Slavin was trying to get a message across to his audience about the treatment and welfare of animals. The content of the issues Slavin tries to address may be beyond the comprehension levels of the targeted audience.
It was also disappointing to see that Slavin needlessly borrows the themes and experiences of slavery and the Underground Railroad and applies it to animal rights. One of the characters Otto and Crackers meet during their journey is Harriet Tubby, a bandana-wearing pig who frees animals from various food production sites and sends them north to safety on the "Freedom Train" to an animal rescue in Canada. A panel depicts the freed animals hiding in the back of a truck on their way to Canada and singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". While this is only a portion of the overall story, five pages, it is overwhelmingly insensitive to the history of slavery and the African American experience. The message Slavin was trying to make to his audience could have been delivered without misusing the legacy of slavery.
Overall, the illustrations are vibrant and interesting, but the sequel is not as strong as the first in the "Elephants Never Forget" series. Fans of the series will be interested to find out what happens next as Otto makes his way to Hollywood and continues his search for his friend Georgie.
Recommended with reservations.
Kerri Hutchinson is a library technician with the Region of Waterloo in Waterloo, ON.
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