Every once in a while, a publisher reaches out to introduce a new author and title to me. Sometimes it's love at first sight, other times I'm not instantly enamored. Since there was something odd but endearing about this onion called Otis that made me want to peel back the layers and learn more, I asked to talk with author Kathryn Hast about her intriguing newcomer Otis Grows. Thank you, Kathryn, for your insight; best wishes as Otis makes its trek around the world!
1. Otis Grows begins with an odd premise: that an onion is the son of a flower and a chicken. How did you come up with the idea, and what do those groups mean to you?
Yes, it’s a bit bizarre. But in some ways most children’s books are, right? I mean, bunnies don’t talk, there’s no such thing as a Truffula tree, and we’re humans, not Muggles. I think one of the cornerstones of childhood is the ability to suspend disbelief, to see past odd anthropomorphization, for example, and find instead empathy via character. I studied magical realism a lot over the course of my MFA, and there’s surely a bridge there, but the story actually began as a dream my dad had. He told me about it, I laughed, and penned a few stanzas as a joke. Returning to it years later, I saw the story as a way to highlight the absurdity of American cultures in conflict, which seems to be happening at such an escalating level.
2. Do you think the theme(s) could be a bit heavy for kids?
It’s a good question. The book is not for everyone. I created it with a fundamental worldview that books are not just for entertainment. Social scientists and educators have been reporting for years that active learning is what works. By contrast, passive learning is when you attend a lecture, when you’re read to… but when you engage and explore concepts actively, the stimulation ensures a richer learning experience. Accordingly--in my view--books can and should lead to conversations. And sometimes those conversations aren’t quick or easy. If it takes a parent and child months to get through my little, forty-page book, I feel I will have done my job.
3. Most children’s books have a targeted age group. But you insist that Otis Grows is for all ages. Why is that?
While many children’s books adhere strictly to age and/or reading levels, I think there’s something to be said for using playful language, which may or may not be elevated. The word “inverse,” for example, is not really for kids, but when you couple it with “of course” and “war’s curse,” and when you provide visual context, kids can get the gist. They’re smarter than we think. Also, it’s always been my hope that adults would enjoy my books, too. How many of us with young kids wish we could read more? How many of us prioritize our kids’ exposure to books over our own? It’s always been my hope that adults can find reflection and meaning in my books. That would be great.
4. What would you say the central message is in Otis Grows?
At a very superficial level, simply: growth. Development. I’ve always been drawn to Bildungsroman as a literary genre, but of course “coming-of-age” can encompass any number of things. There’s a scene in Otis Grows that resonates with me as I enter my forties: it’s when Otis comes back home to see his dad, and from a distance, his father seems “old.” That little piece of Otis’s growth is what speaks to me right now in my life, but others may find pause in the “odor of growing older,” in the realization of the beauty all around, or in Otis’s gained physical height and awkward stature.
5. You’ve mentioned your other books. What more can we expect from you?
My illustrator, L.M. Phang, is currently working on our next collaboration called Batty Betty. It’s about a giant who dances by herself with a red basket. There are some beavers who deride her, and then a tuba and a banana who forge a friendship amidst the “crazy” world they live in. ...So right, if there are objections to an onion having a chicken for a mom, there’s plenty of concepts to critique in this one, too. But I hope people can see past that. You know, Beckett had people living in trashcans; Kafka made a man turn into an insect. I do not claim (or aspire) to be giants such as they, but I do hope for a world where there is more literature, for everyone, including kids.