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October 6, 2014 Otis and the Tornado: One Book, Two Lessons By Brian Smith
Grades PreK–K, 1–2

    When I read a new kids book (which is something that I love to do), a time of year or a unit that the book would fit in perfectly with pops into my head. I recently found Otis and the Tornado by Loren Long, and two themes jumped out at me almost simultaneously. Just based on the title I was prepared to read a book that I could use during Severe Weather Week in April, but while I was reading it, another lesson became obvious: bullying.

    If you don’t know about Otis, he is a tractor that is loyal, tenacious, brave, and a great friend. Otis is the kind of friend that you hope your child is to others when no one is looking. I recently had the chance to discuss this book with Otis’ author, Loren Long and this is what he had to say about Otis:

    I'm not basing Otis on myself. I'm basing him on the person I aspire to be. I simply believe in the overall goodness of the character. I want children to feel that goodness and find a friend in Otis. A character that always cares about others first and always does the right thing, even if it's not easy.

    Otis BooksIf you know the character of Otis, then you know how kind and quiet his books are and what a joy they are to read aloud to a class. The books in the Otis series are:

    Use this Can, Has, Does sheet to help your students come up with descriptive words about Otis after you have read several books in this series.

    I asked Long about the two different themes that I found in the book and this is what he had to say:

    I actually started with two different ideas for the second Otis book. One was a story about the bull. The other idea was about how is reacts to a tornado coming to the farm. I had two different story lines working at the same time and it occurred to me that using them both in the same story strengthened both of them. What started out to be a simple story of how Otis helps his friends in a tornado became a more important story about how he handles the meanest animal on the farm . . . the bull.

    If you use this book to teach about bullies I would suggest pairing it with Llama Llama and the Bully Goat by Anna Dewdney. Reading Llama Llama first opens the conversation for a what a bully is and what a bully is not. Make sure to create a chart so that you can reference it later. Then, while reading Otis and the Tornado, you have the chance to assess how well your students were able to process the differences in being bullied and an action that just wasn’t nice. Not all of the bull’s actions fall into the “bullying” category so it’s a great time to stop and discuss the list of behaviors that constitute being bullied and the behaviors that are not bullying. It is not an easy subject to discuss with a class of younger students, but this is where the conversations have to start if we have any hope of eradicating our school systems of dangerous, bullying behaviors.

    During Severe Weather Week, many states have a mandatory tornado drill. This can be scary for younger students, especially in areas of the country where tornados aren’t that common. I typically get asked, “What’s a tornado?” or get told about a time that somebody knew somebody who had a tornado. (Many times the story isn’t about a tornado at all . . . one time it was actually a story about a burrito!)

    Tornadoes CoverIf you want to use this book to help prepare your students for Severe Weather Week activities, start by reading Tornadoes by Brian Cassie. It’s a nonfiction beginner reader that covers the topic of tornadoes in a scientific way, but you can use any lower reading level tornado book that you have available.

    Remember that when using a nonfiction reader to cover topics, you don’t have to share all the information. By pre-reading the book you can determine what is appropriate to share at your grade level with your specific students.

    After sharing Tornadoes with the class I have them “brain-tornado” (instead of brainstorm) in small groups or partners, about ways to stay safe at school and at home. After their “brain-tornado” time I collect the ideas and then read Otis and the Tornado and we see if Otis and the farmers knew how to stay safe.

    I asked Long if it was tricky to cover a scary topic like a tornado in a kid’s book and this is how he answered that question:

    I did wonder about the delicate subject of a tornado. And I am sensitive to the fact that there may be some readers who may have experienced real tragedy from a tornado. At the same time, nature can be dangerous and it is part of the human experience. And I do believe that stories and literature can serve to expose, teach and even cushion the blow of real life experiences for children. I'm aware that some parents may not feel comfortable reading Otis and the Tornado to very young children. But I've also heard from many that Tornado is their child's favorite Otis story. And I've also heard from parents with children who have been near tornado devastation, have been comforted by reading the story. It has helped them see that a tornado is heavy wind and rain instead of just seeing news clips of the aftermath and wreckage.

    Jesse with OtisWhen asked about the future adventures of my favorite little tractor, Long shared this sneak-peek:

    The brand new and fifth Otis book is Otis and the Scarecrow. It's perhaps a more quiet story. In fact, they play the quiet game in this one. As brave and courageous as Otis has been in the first four books, I believe what Otis does in Otis and the Scarecrow is the most heroic act of all. He stands up. As for the future, I have lots of ideas for future Otis stories but have stepped away from Otis to do a different book at the moment about a little tree (due out Fall 2015).

    And then I'll return to my intrepid little tractor to see what lies ahead for him.

    Mr. Peabody's Apples CoverI recently connected all the dots and figured out that Long also illustrated one of my favorite children books ever, which is Mr. Peabody’s Apples by Madonna. If you haven’t read it, it is a great story with wonderful illustrations that really gets an important lesson about gossip across with a gentle hand. When I made this connection, I had to ask Long about illustrating for other authors as opposed to illustrating his own stories. Here is how he described the two experiences:

    I enjoy both writing and illustrating my own stories and entertaining someone else's story. To me, the challenge of writing a story and the challenge of illustrating a story are separate. So, once I have a manuscript that is ready to go I feel a certain ownership of it and feel like it's mine even if someone else wrote it. The creative process of illustrating is still the same.

    Otis BooksIf you know my friend Otis, I hope that you will share your favorite Otis book in the comment section below, and tell me why you love it. If you haven't met Otis yet, I hope you will pick up a copy for your classroom, you won't be disappointed.

    Let's connect on Twitter and Pinterest.

    I can't wait to see you next week.


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