June 13, 2013 by Heidi
If you have kids, and want to put a book into their hands that will totally get them, look no further than Otis Dooda: Strange but True. I reviewed Otis Dooda last week, now I am so happy to say that Ellen Potter and David Heatley have stopped by today to answer some of my questions about the book and what it was like to write it. First up, however, I highly recommend watching this quick interview to give you a taste of who Ellen, David, and Otis are!
Ellen, Otis Dooda is a big departure from your past middle grade books. It’s aimed at a younger audience, but also has a completely different tone–one that focuses on humor and everyday adventure. I’d love to know if this transition was easy and natural because of your inspiration, or if you struggled.
There were definitely some challenges in writing for a younger reader. I constantly had to stop myself from making the storyline too complicated. The pacing had to be extra snappy. No dawdling over sumptuous description. If you’ve ever had to entertain a bunch of 7-year-old boys for a day, you know that the operative words are go, go GO!
Still, slipping into Otis’ world was pretty easy. Right from the start, I heard his voice in my ear, loud and clear. The other characters started chiming in soon after and before long I found myself laughing at my own scenes as I wrote them. That might be because my baseline maturity level is not very high, but let’s be honest—who doesn’t find a farting miniature horse funny?
(I totally found the flatulent “French Gerbil Hound” funny.)
Speaking of inspiration, please tell us all about your research process that involved eating in a cafeteria with 7-8 year old boys, and how many of Otis’s adventures were directly inspired by your son and his merry band of hellraisers?
You haven’t really lived until you have broken bread with a table full of 7-year-olds in the school cafeteria. Sometimes I felt like I was in a Fellini movie—strange conversations erupted then morphed into contests over who could shove the largest food item up his nose. There was a boy who preferred to eat “floor food.” He would surreptitiously drop his lunch on the floor, then pick it up and eat it. He said it tasted better that way. There were arguments over who had the better scabs and if you could get a disease that would make your head explode. After lunch, I would run home and scribble it all down. It was pure gold.
While there were some details that I borrowed from this research, Otis’ adventures—Potted Plant Guy, subway zombies, the Grim Fugles—all came from my own brain. Which might be cause for concern.
Otis Dooda is a master when it comes to Lego construction, and I hear your son is too. What is the coolest, craziest, or most complex thing your son has ever built out of Legos?
He once built a tiny replica of a urinal, complete with the little blue deodorizer.
I cannot express to you how hard this made me laugh. Amazing.
I just have to confirm this: you really knew a guy growing up who dyed his poodles pink and blue?!
Cross my heart. He had them dyed like Easter eggs.
David, You didn’t just do the art for Otis Dooda, you’ve played a huge role in some of its more unique and interactive features. Namely, you created a soundtrack! I love that you worked the sound of each song around a certain part of the book, from country to R&B, to Indie and punk; though I think the subway zombies song is going to traumatize a few young New Yorkers (or um…me). I’d love to hear how this soundtrack came about.
Thanks for saying that. It’s a mystery to me, really. Sometimes work just pours through you without you really trying. That was definitely the case for the Otis soundtrack. I just found myself compelled, as if in a trance, to sing write songs. I had spent so much time with the book and the characters and had so much affection for them, that when the illustration job was up, I couldn’t let go. I told Ellen from the start that I was going to approach the project with everything I had and really be a partner in bringing the book to life. I can’t write prose like Ellen can (actually very few people in the world can as far as I’m concerned!), so my “voice” came through in the drawings, but when I was done, the “voice” in me had a lot more to say! I wanted to add to the story and deepen certain parts. Songs can do that. Lucky for me, Ellen was really enthusiastic about the idea once I realized I had enough song ideas for a whole album. I’m sure it sounds pretentious, but it really did feel like the songs kind of wrote themselves. I recorded them at my art studio, often in the middle of the night. That’s why Subway Zombies and Cave of Doom sound as creepy as they do… it was the dead of winter at 3am in an industrial part of Queens when I tracked those!
Okay David, I know you enjoy playing with Legos too. So same questions, what is the coolest, craziest, or most complex thing you have ever built out of Legos?
I’m not a builder of big, showy things and never really have been. But I can say that I think they’re basically a perfect toy. Really beyond a toy. They’re a tool, an art material, a Montessori experiment all rolled into one. When I’m sitting anywhere near Legos, I find it much harder to NOT play with them than to play with them. My favorite game to play is to reach into a huge vat of Legos with all kinds of mixed up pieces and grab a handful. Whatever I grab I have to use every piece in whatever I’m building. It makes for some really wild inventions. I’ve gotten my kids and their friends into the game now, too. Totally fun.
I love the art in this book because it is somewhat kid-like and fun. Personally, I find it hilarious that 9 times out of 10 Otis’s mouth is making some sort of manic expression, be it nervous or elated. But, I think my favorite piece of art in the book has to be the rat, Smoochie, parachuting using a Frito Lays bag. Or maybe Otis trying to lick his elbow (because who among us didn’t do that at some point in our lives?). What was your favorite part of the book to illustrate?
Yeah, Otis is just a bundle of emotions. Kind of tightly wound and it all leaks out through his facial expressions. I get that from Charles Schulz, really. He was just a master of conveying any kind of emotion with a few squiggly lines. I’d say my favorite illustration, hands down was Cat’s Room. I want to live in that room! Drawing that picture was part of what made me see that this world Ellen has created is vast. Endless, really. There’s so many nooks and crannies of the building waiting to be explored, let alone the neighborhood, let alone the rest of New York City… And we haven’t scratched the surface of Hog’s Head yet! I’ve got some pretty clear pictures in my head of what that town must be like.
Ellen and David, there’s no arguing that you two were true partners in this venture as Otis Dooda would be a completely different experience without David’s art. There’s at least one illustration for every two page spread in Otis Dooda. So I want to know, what took longer? The art or the words?
David: I did all the artwork in a few months. I’m guessing the writing took longer, but I’ll ask Ellen. I’ve done some comic strips where I’ve written as well as illustrated them and can say that the ratio of writing to art is about 70% / 30%. The story is the most important thing! It’s like the architectural plan for a building. If it’s not solid, the whole thing falls down. Too many illustrated books consist of people slapping overwrought decoration on a shoddily constructed story that doesn’t hold up to one reading, let alone dozens the way Ellen’s books do.
Ellen: It took me about a year to write Otis Dooda, but right from the start I knew that the words were, quite literally, only half the story. So much depended upon the artwork. When I take my son into bookstores or libraries and he is trying to decide on which book to choose, it’s the illustrations that decide it for him almost every time. Now before I met David, I found that fact a little unnerving. Authors don’t choose their illustrators, and typically we rarely have any interaction with them. There’s always that scary email you get from your publisher saying, “I’m attaching the first illustrations for your book.” When I opened that attachment and saw David’s illustrations, I couldn’t stop smiling. And laughing. He had imagined Otis’s world so perfectly! His drawings made my words even funnier. Plus, he added a new layer to Otis. Otis emoted more. He was by turns baffled, outraged and disgusted by all the things going on around him. David made him more vulnerable too. I can’t even begin to describe the delight of seeing the images in your own brain interpreted so beautifully on paper.
I love that there are a number of books for young readers out there really working to engage the audience beyond the page. Not only is there a web page and a soundtrack, but characters from the book have Twitter accounts! What is it like to connect with readers in these ‘new’ ways?
Ellen: These innovative ways of connecting have been David’s brainchild. What I’ve learned from David is that creativity doesn’t have to end when you have finished the book. His Otis Dooda soundtrack added a whole new dimension to the experience of reading. It gets under your skin and lets you experience the story in a more visceral way. Plus, for kids who may not naturally gravitate toward the written word, it offers them another way of relating to a book. One of the other things that I am really loving about this new way of connecting is the chance to shine the spotlight on our readers. We have a Best Builders Blog on the Otis Dooda web site, which features kids and their Lego creations: http://www.otisdooda.com/blog.php
David: It’s so new that we’re just seeing now. I’m hoping we get more interactions going. Pretty fun to watch Otis navigate the waters of the real-life Lego nerd bloggers and tweeters out there! Cat’s a little lazy about her Twitter account. Maybe some part of her thinks she’s too cool for it. But I have a feeling she’ll step it up this summer once school’s out.
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), Ellen, were your son and his friends happy with Otis Dooda?
That was the real test. While I was writing my first draft, I would read sections to my son and wait for his laughter. If it didn’t come when it was supposed to, I’d scratch the scene. And yes, in the end my son and his friends loved the book. Honestly, though, I think it was David’s illustrations that really clinched the deal for them. They were riveted by those drawings. And when David created the soundtrack . . . holy moley, those kids were singing Otis Dooda songs in school, at our house, in the backseat of the car! The soundtrack turned Otis and his pals into celebrities.
Thanks so much to author Ellen Potter and illustrator (+ music extraordinaire) David Heatley for joining us today! Doesn’t elementary lunchtime sound amazing?
Meet Otis Dooda. Yes, that’s his name. Go on and have a good laugh. He’s heard it all before. He’s been called things like Otis Poopy Stink and Otis Toilet Twinkie. That’s right, yuck it up and get it out of your system. We’ll wait.
All right then. This is the story of Otis and the Dooda family (including their rat named Smoochie) moving to New York City, and the incredibly strange, but true, things that happened to them. It all started with Otis getting cursed by a guy in a potted plant in their apartment building lobby, and then meeting a bunch of their neighbors, including a farting pony named Peaches who was disguised as a dog. And that was just the first day.
Thanks to the generosity of Ellen Potter, I have a copy of Otis Dooda to share with one lucky reader (or for you to share with your kids!).
- Giveaway is US and Canada only.
- Winner will have 24 hours to respond to my e-mail before another winner will be chosen.