In her newest novel, “Odder,” we see why children’s writer Katherine Applegate is a Newbery medalist and New York Times bestselling author—it’s because her writing touches readers’ hearts, fills us with emotion, and often shows us a new way of observing the world around us. In “Odder,” we meet a sea otter whose antics fill us with happiness as she dances and twirls and dives joyfully in her ocean environment. At the same time, we glimpse the danger that otters face, and the greater danger that imperiled them in the past—humans. Now, aside from terrible storms, their greatest foes are hungry sharks.
As Applegate points out from the start, sharks don’t really want to eat otters. Otters are too thin and hairy; no blubber. But young sharks and extremely hungry sharks might not be aware of that, and by the time they take a taste, it’s often too late for the poor, munched-on otter. We learn that Odder already had spent time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California when she was found hungry and alone as a young otter pup. She was raised successfully and released, and she lived in the wild for three years before her encounter with a great white shark.
The free verse narrative allows Applegate to play with words and phrases, providing readers with a way to internalize the movements and agility of the otters through the lively, descriptive phrases.
“The chase begins,
through the marshy shallows
of Elkhorn Slough,
toward the icy,
deep waters of the bay—
in, out, up, down,
pirouettes and lifts and dips,
a bubbly ballet.”
Each little chapter, some as short as half a page, has a heading that gives an indication of what that section will be about, such as “recovery” or “the beach” or “the Fifty.” In explaining what “the Fifty” is, Applegate shares the grim reality that at one point in time, because of the slaughter of the sea otters for their plush, rich fur, there were only fifty of them left in the world. While their numbers have increased through conservation efforts and legislation, they are still considered endangered.
The lessons we learn by reading about Odder’s life are many. While we laugh at Odder’s antics, we also see the heartbreaking result of her perilous play and risky behavior. There’s a great conversation to be had with young readers about the balancing act we must consider when thinking about our activities and the risks we decide to take in pursuit of pleasure. While we want to enjoy life, we also need to ensure that we do it in a thoughtful and safe manner. What might Odder have done to live a safer life? How did her initial stay at the Monterey Bay Aquarium affect the rest of her life? What information does the text provide to inform us of those issues?
It’s often through fiction that readers learn real truths—sometimes truths more real than might be accessed by reading nonfiction narratives that might fail to engage the emotions of the reader. By meeting Odder and her friends and learning about these charming and delightful creatures, young readers will become aware of the plight that sea otters face because of the natural dangers that exist in their habitat. While it’s true that sea otters almost became extinct, through tireless effort and love, people are working to help and rehabilitate every sea otter they can. And we understand from the very informative author’s note at the end that the novel “Odder” was, in fact, based on real otters that spent time at that aquarium. Included is a selective bibliography and pages of resources for young readers, both in print and online. Here is a link to the aquarium’s Sea Otter Cam. “Odder” is, indeed, an important read for children, and with the guidance of a parent or teacher, there are many real truths to be learned from Odder’s informative and emotional journey.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Feiwel & Friends, for review purposes.