By Maureen Tai, 4 June 2018
“Ottoline had two collections that were all her own. One was her Odd Shoe collection, of which she was very proud. Whenever Ottoline bought a pair of shoes, she would wear one and put the other in her collection.”
Ottoline is too young to accompany her remarkably prescient absentee parents on their world wanderings. But she is not too young to spend her days by herself in an artifact-filled apartment in the company of a hairy Norwegian bog person called Mr. Munroe. As outlandish as it sounds, Ottoline is an extremely relatable character.
Despite her quirks, she is utterly charming. Clever, stoic, thoughtful and mature beyond her years (though her age is never fully disclosed), Ottoline is, to top it off, a dab hand at mystery-solving.
In Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, the first in a series of early reader books that chronicle her adventures, we are presented with newspaper clippings that describe a spate of robberies involving wealthy and bejewelled high society ladies. Could there be a connection between these burglaries and the posters of missing lapdogs? Hmmmmm.
We are then introduced to the little girl’s rather unusual living arrangements. Ottoline Brown’s parents are professors and professional collectors who travel the world. Their only mode of communication with their daughter is postcards that they regularly send from exotic locations. Ottoline is, rather sadly, a long-term latchkey kid. Despite this rather neglectful state of affairs, she is well looked after by an eclectic and well-meaning assortment of hired help. They include two obliging ladies in tall chef’s hats from the Smiling Dragon Clothes Folding Co., who fold her underthings into neat squares and triangles, and the identically dressed troop of men in sunglasses who come in to change the lightbulbs in her Pepperpot Building apartment.
We next learn about Ottoline’s sleuth-in-arms, Mr Munroe. The hairy unspeaking Norwegian bog person has round eyes that peer balefully from behind thick tumbles of hair. After accepting the Browns’ invitation to come live with them, he helps look after wee baby Ottoline. As she grows up, his quiet presence provides comfort to her when she is sad, and inspiration when she is thinking up clever plans and solutions. (Despite disliking it, Mr Munroe lets Ottoline brush the long hair which covers his entire form. This soothing activity helps her clarify her thoughts, you see).
All this rich detail, and more, is conveyed in the delicate, intricate, imaginative, offbeat and positively fascinating ink and pen drawings that liberally grace each and every page. Chris Riddell, who was the UK Children’s Laureate in 2015, tells as much of Ottoline’s story through thoughtful and exquisite illustrations as in the easy-to-read text. For slightly hesitant younger readers who are not quite ready to leave the visual feast offered by picture books, Ottoline and the Yellow Cat and the other books in the series are a wonderful bridge into the enticing realm of chapter books. A word of warning: you may decide to linger on this bridge for much longer than you intended.
For ages 6 and up.