Friday Night Flashback: A Novel Exploration: Stewy Bugs Otis

Once more our “Novel Exploration” series takes us back to a memory, in this instance of reading Beverly Cleary’s Otis Spofford with my son, who at that time was in kindergarten. I’d loved the books myself as a child and had introduced Adam (his chosen non de plume at the time) to the neighborhood by way of Ribsy. He’d adored this lovable, goofy pooch, even though at the time he was terrified of dogs.

He is now twelve and continues to love animals and books. He also engages in running commentary as he reads; even if he is reading to himself, he often will come explain what is occurring and then offer his assessment. (I’m pretty proud to add that many times his observations are quite impressive.) The long and the short of this is he truly engages with what he is reading–the characters and events matter to him. There is a relationship.

As I was reading over old other-blog entries for this FNF, I chose this one as it was so closely related to a book review I’d just published, for a novel whose theme involved relationships, and I’d referenced reader/protagonist connections. Especially when I reached the last paragraph, when Adam asks about compromise, I marveled not only at the connections between reading experiences but also, as I mention, too, in that last paragraph, how they linger for lifetimes.

As with my own alternating views of Tessa in my read, here Adam goes back and forth with regard to how he feels about Otis. His dislike from the previous session may have been influenced by, as mentioned below, his disapproval of Otis’s meanness, fatigue or even just disinterest, in general or in the moment. Becoming keen on Otis once more might have been rejuvenated by rest, the character’s consideration for an animal, or any number of reasons. The bottom line is that here is a protagonist who speaks to the reader, and that is worth carrying for a lifetime.

[“Look at that dragonfly,” he said. “That’s a beauty.” Otis felt a little better. At least Hack Battleson liked his dragonfly. Image to be replaced]

Over the past few days Adam and I have been reading Otis Spofford as well as a few other books. Sometimes I wonder if Adam needs a break from Otis or if on occasion my timing is just off, because during one reading he seemed rather unenthusiastic. He may have just been tired, I suppose, or not in the mood for this boy, whom Adam doesn’t always view as a sympathetic character. “He’s mean,” he says with surprise.

We don’t finish a chapter at each reading (I don’t, in fact, make that a goal), and one night I don’t even get to a suitable transition spot. We just end up stopping because it simply isn’t working well. Adam, insanely tired, is restless and simply cannot sit still unless it’s to go to sleep, which he does rather quickly after we decide to close the book. I’m OK with stopping, but I feel a bit bad that it didn’t seem a good experience for him, and wonder if fatigue was the only problem.

[Book cover image to be replaced]

But he seems to recover quickly because soon enough he’s carrying the book around the house again and talking about Mutt the rat, whom Otis had smuggled contraband food into the classroom for, thereby upsetting a class experiment on nutrition. Mutt was supposed to be fed soda pop and bread while Pinky, another rat, was given leftovers from the school’s lunch menu. Mrs. Gitler’s goal in the end is to show that on pop and bread a rat would not grow well. Otis feels sorry for the rat, however, and his secret is at the cost of his own lunch hour (and lunch) as he was, unknown to his teacher, locked into the classroom–on one occasion while she sits just on the other side of the class from where he secrets himself. In the end it is revealed that someone else, the disturbingly clean and neat and obedient girl Ellen Tebbits, was also secretly sustaining Mutt, and the two have a tense battle for who gets to take home the rat at project’s end.

“Raise your hand, Otis! Wave it!” Adam waves his hand wildly as if instructing Otis how to be seen by Mrs. Gitler, who is ignoring him following Ellen’s confession. When he, too, confesses and the rat is awarded to Ellen–“Yes, Ellen, since you told us about feeding Mutt first, you may have him for a pet”–he is sorely disappointed and complains bitterly to himself. But Adam consoles him by advising of Ellen’s tidiness and unsuitability for a pet rat. As Otis sits in front of his home Adam predicts that Ellen, who at this point is walking down the street, would give him the animal. “Her mommy won’t let her keep a rat!” And sure enough this is exactly how it turns out.

It’s really interesting to watch all this unfold from the viewpoint of another, from a child, especially given that Adam has not always been this adept at such skills as predicting. His commentary has become somewhat astute as well, and I’m very eager to read to him with another child in attendance. I’m curious to see another child’s perspective, if Adam holds back with her present (I’m thinking of a particular friend of his), or if there is any kind of distracting quality in our new dynamic.

The next time we read is a bit different. He’s more subdued, but it doesn’t seem to be for any negative reason. It’s also interesting to see that though insects are involved, he not only doesn’t mind, he’s downright engaged. (In “real” life he is not fond of insects and often checks under his blanket [or sleeps on top] to make sure none are under there.) As with his lack of involvement with dogs, books seem to give him the opportunity to get closer to something, see what it is like or how it works, at no risk to him.

On a boring early evening after school, Otis and Stewy are canvassing the neighborhood looking for something to do when they happen upon Hack Battleson, a high school football player who has star status in the boys’ eyes. Otis is unhappy and restless until then, and when he learns Hack needs to collect 30 bugs for a science project, he offers to help. Stewy follows suit and this bugs Otis, who dreams of being the sole savior of the high school football team: Having collected the bugs, he would have freed Hack to practice his game.

[Newer book cover image to be replaced]

But Stewy, much to Otis’s (and Adam’s) chagrin, insists on being a part of the action and the race is on! The boys have until 6:30 and the competition is fierce. Adam, who had chanted the “T-T-T-A-Y. L-L-L-O-R. T-A-Y. L-O-R. Ta-a-ay-lor!” cheer along with the boys earlier, now urges Otis to hurry up and get his bugs. At one point when Otis climbs a trellis Adam asks me to look it up on the Internet and show him a picture. I’d done this before as an easy way to give him a visual of something he was unfamiliar with, and like any smart child of our computerized information age, he remembered the lesson well. It kind of makes me wonder in a sort of sidebar part of my thoughts at that moment, how he will later feel about Internet books. Would they be ordinary to him, having been born and raised on computers? Or would having had many books with pictures and possibly a special sort of aura about them be a mark against e-books?

Then I read a sentence about a fly and Adam chimes in with, “If you took his wings off would he be called a walk?” He’s starting to get into the moment again and I laugh heartily at his memory of a joke we’d shared. When Stewy admonishes Otis for “stealing” a bug (because it came from the sidewalk in front of the rival’s house), Adam quickly comes to Otis’s defense: “It’s not your sidewalk,” which is along the lines of Otis’s own retort.

But Otis doesn’t waste time arguing and goes to his own house to follow up on an idea; Bucky, a kindergarten neighbor dressed up as a cowboy, is there and begging for attention as usual. I wonder how Adam might receive Otis’s impatience with the kindergartner and characterizations of little kids, but he doesn’t seem bothered. The cowboy costume might have saved Bucky in the eyes of our own kindergarten reader.

In the end Otis, who has only 29 bugs and fears Stewy has beaten him, discovers one of Stewy’s gems is actually a spider, a critter Hack had prohibited for its non-insect status (too many legs). Just as the discovery is made known to Hack, the dog scratches himself–as he had in the beginning of the story, a neat little way to fit things together–and Otis gets the idea to, “get a flea off the dog!” Adam mightn’t have thought of this had we not read about how fleas had played a role in Ribsy and that dog’s inability to return to his owner (who had taken the collar off to give the poor pooch some relief). But then again, all predictive ability relies on previous knowledge, and I feel a lot of pleasure that Adam has gained from it for his body of knowledge and bring it to bear here.

Once more Otis settles for a compromise of sorts as Stewy insists the flea belongs to him–it is his dog after all. Running home for dinner, Otis consoles himself with a fantasy of being Five Yard Spofford, running towards a touchdown to save the Zachary P. Taylor High School football team’s big game.

As I type this I recall Adam asking on a following afternoon, “What does compromise mean?” I answer his inquiry and we discuss it, but it doesn’t occur to me until a few moments later that he may have been remembering it from our discussion of the chapter after we stopped reading for the night. I can’t really be sure, as he hears and reads all kinds of words big and small, but true to the childlike ability to teach us grownups a thing or two, I was given a reminder of how long those post-reading summaries can last in a child’s mind. Not just days, but also, as the information becomes part of his being, a lifetime.

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Click here to see the previous (and first!) in the “Novel Exploration” series.

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This post was updated to link to a previous entry.

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