Every now and then, you come across a picture book character that is almost too cute. One that your child will still indulge when they’re feeling especially nostalgic. One whose books you only pull out on special occasions because though your child has grown older, reading them is a tradition. Today’s recommendation stars one of those characters: Otis, a lovable old-timey tractor who lives on a farm and has adventures with his closest friends, the animals who live on the farm.
We have three Otis books in our library, though there are several others. Written and beautifully illustrated by Loren Long, each story teaches a valuable lesson about friendship, courage and even humility. In the flagship Otis, we meet the small red tractor for the first time. He is very happy and content with his life on the farm. He does meaningful work for the farmer and he has many friends, the closest being the little calf who lives in the barn stall next to Otis.
Yes, life is good for the little tractor until the day that the farmer unveils the newest member of the farm fam. He looks suspiciously like a tractor but he’s yellow and he’s HUGE! The farmer has brought him to the farm to do some heavy lifting; jobs that Otis just isn’t big enough or strong enough to do. Otis experiences that all too familiar pang of feeling less than or unimportant. It’s heartbreaking but relatable and I think it’s an important lesson for readers. Kids are incredibly intuitive and can often internalize thoughts and beliefs we would never imagine. Talking through these situations together using a familiar character can help kids (and parents!) to tackle tough topics like self-esteem and worthiness.
In the end, of course Otis has an incredible opportunity to prove his value to the farm. When his friend, the little calf, becomes stuck in deep mud, Otis is the only one who can come to his rescue! In the end, he learns that there is room for both him and the new yellow tractor on the farm. Everyone has special traits and experiences they bring to families, friendships, classrooms… and Otis helps teach this lesson in a safe, reassuring way.
In Otis and the Puppy, Otis saves the day once again, when he rescues a new puppy friend who has become lost during a game of hide and seek. When night falls, the farmer herds the animals back to the barn. But Otis is determined to find the puppy. He knows how frightened he must be, alone in the dark. He is also scared of the dark but knows what he has to do. Otis clicks on his headlights and ventures into the night.
As expected, once he’s alone in the dark, he becomes paralyzed with fear. The sounds of night can be scary when you’re all alone. But he drives all over the forest, looking in every possible hiding spot. Finally, his light flickers on a hollow log that appears to have a puppy tail sticking out of it! At last, the puppy is reunited with a friendly face. On the way home, they both stand a little taller, braver than they were on their own. This is an adorable story of how good friends can make us stronger.
An Otis Christmas again gives the little red tractor a chance to save a life. Wow, Otis is a busy guy! Given his courage and fearlessness in the face of surmounting obstacles, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he has ambulances and fire engines in his family line. Back to the story, it’s Christmastime and a mare is pregnant with a foal. Otis is so excited to have a new friend to play with.
On Christmas Eve, the farmer comes to the barn to feed the animals a special holiday meal. He presents Otis with a shiny new horn. Otis is so proud! He’s never received a gift before and he’s always wanted horn of his own! On his way out, the farmer tells the animals to sleep tight, a big snow is on the way. Otis happily settles in and is just drifting off when he hears troubled voices. It’s the farmer and one of his farm hands. The mare has gone into labor and things are not going well. If the doctor is unable to make it to the farm in time, both the mare and foal will die.
When the deep snow prevents the farm hand from leaving, Otis jolts into action. He knows the way to the doctor’s home, at least, he does under normal conditions. But in the deep snow, Otis realizes that he’s hopelessly lost. What is he going to do? Well, he’s going to persevere, of course! He decides to take a somewhat dangerous course through the woods and fortunately, emerges at the doctor’s home.
But at this time of night, everyone is fast asleep. How can Otis make enough noise to wake the doctor? Remember his new horn, just given to him a few pages ago? He toots his little horn as loudly as he can until the doctor takes notice. He realizes that there must be trouble on the farm, so he jumps onto Otis and the two zoom off.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, no one knows that Otis has left. They are beginning to fear the worst for the mare and foal. Until… putt, puff, honk, honk! Otis and the doctor are here to save the day! Otis waits all night to learn the fate of both horses. Suddenly, the barn doors open, revealing a beautiful baby horse, struggling to stay up on his spindly legs. But there’s something very special about this foal; he has the marking of a star on his forehead! That Christmas day, as the roads began to clear, townspeople came to the farm to see the new baby. Otis beamed with pride, knowing that his actions the previous night had helped bring his new friend into the world safely.
Though my son is quickly outgrowing the reach of the Otis collection, I plan to pull An Otis Christmas off the shelf for as many holidays as he’ll allow. These books hold a special meaning for both of us. I hope you’ll also find a sweet comfort in these stories of a hard-working, kind-hearted tractor and how true friendship enriches lives.