Otto’s Orange Day
By Frank Cammuso and Jay Lynch
Raw Junior LLC, 40 pp.
Ages 6 and up
Otto is a mischievous cat who adores the color orange—so much so that when a genie grants him one wish, Otto instructs the genie to tint everything orange. But just as Midas discovered the downside to his golden touch, Otto quickly realizes that a monochromatic world—even an orange one—isn’t nearly as wonderful as he’d hoped it would be. His food tastes odd; his house is indistinguishable from all the other orange-colored homes; and familiar phrases such as “I’ve got the blues” are no longer meaningful. A chastened Otto must then cook up a scheme to restore the full spectrum of color to his neighborhood, even if it means bribing the genie with pizza.
One of the first titles in the newly launched Toon Books series, Otto’s Orange Day is a game attempt to bridge the gap between picture books and comics. The forty-page story (roughly the same length as a standard picture book) is neatly divided into three chapters. And like its Caldecott-winning brethren, Otto has been packaged for maximum shelf appeal, with hard covers, glossy pages, and handsome end papers that would work equally well for an Everyman edition of Bleak House.
The same high-mindedness extends to the content. As series editors Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman explain, Toon Books are designed to foster a love of reading among the primary school set:
Each TOON book has been vetted by educators to ensure that the language and the narratives will nurture young minds. Our books feature original stories and characters created by veteran children’s book authors, renowned cartoonists and new talents, all applying their extraordinary skills to fascinate young children with clearly told tales that will welcome them to the magic of reading.
And therein lies the problem: Otto’s Orange Day is just a little too wholesome and bland to work in comic book form. Nothing about its careful-what-you-wish-for narrative demands the comic treatment; Otto’s Orange Day could just as easily be a picture book or an episode of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. Artist Frank Cammuso does little to exploit the full possibilities of the medium, relying too heavily on word balloons to carry the story. Even his characters, though appealingly drawn in bold lines and rounded shapes, have an overly familiar quality. As several critics have noted, Otto looks like a close relative of the wise-cracking tiger in Calvin and Hobbes, while the genie bears a striking resemblance to the motor-mouthed genie in Aladdin.
More than anything, however, the book feels too pat, lacking the freewheeling, anarchic spirit of the best children’s literature. From the very first pages, it’s obvious that the authors intend to teach their readers An Important Lesson. Otto sometimes feels more like a mouthpiece for adult ideas about wise decision-making than a genuine character, reducing his journey from orange-colored ignorance to multi-colored bliss to a somewhat mechanical exercise.
If my critique seems unduly harsh for what is, essentially, a pleasant read, it’s because Otto doesn’t realize the full potential of the Toon Book concept. The packaging and presentation are appealing, and lend Otto a certain picture book legitimacy that will undoubtedly make it easier for parents to embrace it as a “real” book, worthy of sitting alongside Madeleine and Babar on the shelf. What’s missing, however, is that sense of imagination, of kid logic, that makes a story feel like it’s written for kids and not at them, a distinction that an earlier generation of comic artists truly understood
All images copyright © Raw Books LLC.