Sunday, January 18, 2009

review: Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller

Do Unto Otters written and illustrated by Laurie Keller. Henry Holt, 2008 (978-8050-7996-8) $16.95

Humorous etiquette books tend to go in a nonsensically extra-prim direction, like the classic What Do You Do, Dear?, in which we learn that the polite pirate will pick up a lady's handkerchief if she drops it while walking the plank. Keller takes a different approach here, bringing her usual pun-filled wackiness to a hilarious but sincere lesson in basic good manners and considerate behavior.

Mr. Rabbit is worried about getting along with his new neighbors--"otters! I don't know anything about otters!"--until an Owl tells him about that old saying, "Do unto otters as you would have otters do unto you." As Mr. Rabbit ponders about how he would like otters to treat him, the examples are exuberantly illustrated by the bug-eyed, colorful characters. "I'd like it if we could share things," shows Mr. Rabbit and an otter trading their favorite books--Harry Otter and Goldilocks and the Three Hares; enjoying their favorite activities--one is the "Otter-Totter"--and sharing their favorite treats--carrot topped pizza and a fish sundae. ("Hmmmm... maybe not the treats.")

Keller's work often has a sort of stream-of-consciousness feeling to it, as if she just decided to go with every single silly idea that popped into her head; it's so thoroughly over-the-top that somehow it works. In several running jokes, a bee demonstrates good stinging etiquette. An otter shows off his skills at saying polite words in five languages: Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Pig Latin. And anthropomorphic arrows point the way through the book while smilingly telling us "please look" and "thanks for looking" and "excuse me." (If I had to pick one image to exemplify Keller's work, it might be the burping "excuse me" arrow.)

There are plenty of good ideas here and the likability of the characters helps the message sink in. Who wouldn't want to be kind and polite to this sensitive rabbit, who hopes that the otters "won't tease me about my 'doo-dee-doo song/my extra-large swim fins/my 'bad hare days'." Or to the embarrassed otter who cringingly apologizes, "I'm sorry I used your ear as a tissue." (4-8)

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