by Kathryn Hast
First Comes Change, Then Comes Growth:
NEW CHILDREN’S BOOK EXPLORES GROWING THROUGH CHALLENGE, FINDING BEAUTY IN THE WORLD AROUND US
As much as we’d like to, there’s no way to completely shield our children from all change, conflict, and grief. The truth is, there’s so much beauty in the world often overshadowed by the “scary” that it’s more important than ever that we teach our kids how to confidently grow in the face of challenge.
In the beautifully crafted new children’s book Otis Grows by Kathryn Hast, we’re introduced to young Otis, a red onion who is forced to question his origin and allegiances—given that his mom, a yellow chicken, is part of the Nuh-Uhs, and his dad, a blue flower, stems from the Yes-Chums. Struggling to find answers, Otis runs away, only to encounter more colors and cultures than he could ever imagine. Rooted in the challenges of family conflict, this book still appeals to any child – or adult – who knows that growing up can be tough, that there is “the odor of growing older,” but that, ultimately, love and wonder will win.
The author, a mother of (and frequent reader to) two young children has an MFA in writing, and was inspired to create a truly entertaining yet meaningful story that resonates with all families, especially in this time of turbulence. As a “child of divorce,” Hast knows that shifts in families can have long-lasting effects on kids and hopes to teach them how to navigate through it, and even see the beauty in it.
“Otis Grows is a kid’s book that looks at adult problems. It playfully engages us all to consider: what’s tough, what’s inherent, but most of all, what’s possible,” Hast says.
With its bright, whimsical illustrations and lyrical style, Otis Grows touches on:
- The inherent nature of conflict, especially current day: How we can acknowledge and address it
- There’s still more good than bad in the world: Why we should delight in it
- Bigger conversations that children and parents can share together about conflict and more
- The importance of reading together as a family
- And much more!
Kathryn Hast has a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in writing and a Master’s degree in Education. She is from York, Pennsylvania, and she lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband and two children. She has one dog named after a Beatles song, and one that barks at the television. Otis Grows is her first published work of fiction, and her next book Batty Betty is forthcoming.
Otis Grows begins with an odd premise: that an onion is the son of a flower and a chicken. How did you come up with the idea, and what do those groups mean to you?
Yes, it’s a bit bizarre. But in some ways most children’s books are, right? I mean, bunnies don’t talk, there’s no such thing as a Truffula tree, and we’re humans, not Muggles. I think one of the cornerstones of childhood is the ability to suspend disbelief, to see past odd anthropomorphization, for example, and find instead empathy via character. I studied magical realism a lot over the course of my MFA, and there’s surely a bridge there, but the story actually began as a dream my dad had. He told me about it, I laughed, and penned a few stanzas as a joke. Returning to it years later, I saw the story as a way to highlight the absurdity of American cultures in conflict, which seems to be happening at such an escalating level.
Don’t you think the theme(s) could be a bit heavy for kids?
It’s a good question. The book is not for everyone. I created it with a fundamental worldview that books are not just for entertainment. Social scientists and educators have been reporting for years that active learning is what works. By contrast, passive learning is when you attend a lecture, when you’re read to… but when you engage and explore concepts actively, the stimulation ensures a richer learning experience. Accordingly--in my view--books can and should lead to conversations. And sometimes those conversations aren’t quick or easy. If it takes a parent and child months to get through my little, forty-page book, I feel I will have done my job.
Most children’s books have a targeted age group. But you insist that Otis Grows is for all ages. Why is that?
While many children’s books adhere strictly to age and/or reading levels, I think there’s something to be said for using playful language, which may or may not be elevated. The word “inverse,” for example, is not really for kids, but when you couple it with “of course” and “war’s curse,” and when you provide visual context, kids can get the gist. They’re smarter than we think. Also, it’s always been my hope that adults would enjoy my books, too. How many of us with young kids wish we could read more? How many of us prioritize our kids’ exposure to books over our own? It’s always been my hope that adults can find reflection and meaning in my books. That would be great.
What would you say the central message is in Otis Grows?
At a very superficial level, simply: growth. Development. I’ve always been drawn to Bildungsroman as a literary genre, but of course “coming-of-age” can encompass any number of things. There’s a scene in Otis Grows that resonates with me as I enter my forties: it’s when Otis comes back home to see his dad, and from a distance, his father seems “old.” That little piece of Otis’s growth is what speaks to me right now in my life, but others may find pause in the “odor of growing older,” in the realization of the beauty all around, or in Otis’s gained physical height and awkward stature.
You’ve mentioned your other books. What more can we expect from you?
My illustrator, L.M. Phang, is currently working on our next collaboration called Batty Betty. It’s about a giant who dances by herself with a red basket. There are some beavers who deride her, and then a tuba and a banana who forge a friendship amidst the “crazy” world they live in. ...So right, if there are objections to an onion having a chicken for a mom, there’s plenty of concepts to critique in this one, too. But I hope people can see past that. You know, Beckett had people living in trashcans; Kafka made a man turn into an insect. I do not claim (or aspire) to be giants such as they, but I do hope for a world where there is more literature, for everyone, including kids.