Saturday, December 13, 2014

Otis and the Scarecrow

"It was summer when the scarecrow first came
to the farm where the friendly little tractor named
Otis lived, back when the corn was tall and ripe."
I'm not sure if I've mentioned my beloved farm family before on this blog.  Prairie Heritage Farm is owned by a family that I am lucky enough to call my friends, the Cowgills.  Their farm is in Power, Montana, roughly 99 miles from my home in Helena.  During the summer for the past two years, I've driven every other week up to the farm to pick up shares of the harvest for people who live here in Helena.  I do this about 18 times a summer, from June through the beginning of October.  Knowing the Cowgills, and participating in their farm, has enriched our lives in so many ways.  They are wonderful people with a real passion for what they do.  The food that we get from the farm (vegetables, grains, turkeys, eggs and pork, at various times of the year) has taught me so much about eating what is fresh, and experimenting with new foods and tastes.  And it is such an amazing gift - people who purchase shares here in Helena come to my house to pick them up.  I love talking with people about what is currently growing on the farm, what looks great that week, and advocating for my favorite family farm.  And even more importantly, the Cowgill children, Willa and Eli, have the most amazing collection of farm-themed children's books I've ever seen.
That's where Otis comes in.  The farmer puts out the scarecrow as the corn ripens so that the crows will be frightened away.  And of course, at first his ploy works.  All the crows disappear.  What Otis sees, though, isn't scary - it's a potential new friend.  Otis is already friends with all the farm animals, and there's no reason why the scarecrow shouldn't be his friend too.  But when Otis and the pack of animals approach the scarecrow, "He just stood there, that sour look on his face, staring at the cornfield.  The animals didn't know what to think."  As autumn approaches, the animals have all given up on the scarecrow as someone to engage with.  As pumpkins are harvested, "The farm looked different, but Otis loved the changing seasons and he worked and played as hard as ever, putt puff puttedy chuff." 
This year I not only got a share through the summer, but also got a turkey at Thanksgiving, and have gotten a fall/winter share the past few weeks.  In Montana, the growing seasons are short, and many crops can be adversely affected by the snow and cold that can arrive as early as September.  Crops are grown in greenhouses or under hoops to protect them and keep the soil warm as long as possible.  I am unexpectedly grateful for fresh baby lettuces, spinach and kale this fall.
As autumn continues, Otis and his friends are playing the quiet game.  "The quiet game is a contest in which everyone must stay quiet and still.  No sounds, no laughing, no snorting, quacking, giggling, or puffing."  They all play together - ducks, horse, puppy, calf, pig and Otis.  But Otis can't help thinking of the scarecrow, all alone in the field, sour look and all.  As a cold rainstorm starts to usher in winter, the animals all huddle together, staying warm in each other's company under the apple tree.  As they play the quiet game, Otis keeps thinking of someone who is left out, someone who would be the best at that game.
I have always loved the Otis books.  One of the things I love best about Otis the tractor is how hard he works during the day, but how easily he slips into play mode.  The quiet game is a fun game for all of them, in part because it triggers very predictable responses from each of them.  "This made the bull chuckle with a snort.  The bull's snort would amuse the ducks...soon everyone would be laughing, snorting, quacking and giggling. "  All of the animals and Otis enjoy each other and have camaraderie no matter what they are doing.
Another thing that I loved about Otis that is consistent across all of his books is his kindness and friendship.  In the first Otis book, he and the calf bond over their play.  In this book, there can be no real connection with the scarecrow - no matter how hard Otis tries, he cannot get the scarecrow to want to be his friend.  But ultimately that doesn't matter to Otis.  Otis gives the gift of friendship to the scarecrow anyways, keeping him company on his hill.  It is a sweet, thoughtful gesture that is completely Otis.
There is one other thing that I wanted to share about these books.  I love the illustrations and how well the book design works with Long's illustrative technique.  The colors are soft and a little retro, just like Otis is.  The book as a whole looks refined and elegant, which could make the story not as relatable to young children.  But the sophisticated design and gorgeous colors are offset by the characters Long creates.  The animals, the farmer and Otis all have the most expressive faces.  They show disgust, delight, and even that sour look on the scarecrow.  And the sight of the animals all playing the quiet game is perfect - full of laughter and action.
As autumn has already transitioned into winter here, it feels like a little miracle when my favorite farmer dropped off my share a couple of days ago.  He was already in town, so I didn't make the trek out to Power this time.  He brought four full bags of potatoes, onions, garlic, spaghetti squash, eggs, and greens.  All fresh, all recently harvested, with some of the dirt from the fields still lingering.  My love for Prairie Heritage Farm and the Cowgills is like Otis' gift of friendship - it's really a gift to myself.
Gloria at the farm
Otis.  Loren Long.  Philomel Books, 2009.
Otis and the Scarecrow.  Loren Long.  Philomel Books, 2014.
Otis from my personal collection, Otis and the Scarecrow  sent by publisher for review

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