Otto and Pio
“Sometimes agreeing to be friends and roommates is the family structure that will be the most emotionally successful . . .”
Otto and Pio touches on an underserved niche in children’s picture books: the untraditional family structure. The story is odd, but then again, there exists in families many odd stories. The traditional nuclear family of mother, father, and two kids is a thing of old rerun sitcoms. Families today take on any number of designs, and Otto and Pio embodies a unique setup.
One morning Otto, a squirrel who lives alone in a big luscious tree, discovers a strange prickly pod ball on the branch outside his door. Not interested in the least in this ball, Otto goes about his business until the ball cracks. Out hatches a cute fluffy critter, Pio, whose first word upon seeing Otto is “Mommy!” Otto is horrified by this title and walks away, closing the door on the freshly hatched creature.
Otto’s conscience comes around, and he relents to invite the little tyke inside for just one night. Adamantly refusing to accept the “Mommy” responsibility, Otto announces he will, however, search for the mother in the morning.
Over the course of the next few weeks Otto does all he can to locate Pio’s mother, but to no avail. All the while Pio is growing exponentially larger, ultimately outgrowing Otto’s space. Pio is also trying to make himself useful around the house (cooking, cleaning, decorating) so that Otto will like him, although his usefulness is counterbalanced by some unfortunate mishaps.
Not until Otto is almost eaten by a swooping eagle and a super-huge Pio comes to his rescue does Otto give in and welcome Pio into his life and his home. Otto never succeeds in finding Pio’s mother. No, this is not a spoiler. It seems that throughout the story there was never an expectation that Pio’s mother would surface; doubt hangs in the air with every idea Otto tries.
There are several elements that come out of nowhere that will make the adult reader wish for a tighter plot delivery. The slight mention about the eagle (Are we to assume it’s dangerous?), the consumption of hazelnuts (Are we to assume Otto lives in a hazelnut tree?), Pio’s sudden ability to make soup (Where did all those ingredients and a Pio-sized apron come from?), and Otto’s decision to walk out on Pio (When did Otto’s emotions begin to escalate?). The reader is asked to make many conclusions that aren’t necessarily true, which makes to book feel off balance, full of unconnected tangents, and too long.
Starting with a promise of a parent-child relationship, a much different ending is presented. The warm-hearted ending and the gentle illustrations serve to twist the story away from family-centric into a connection between friends and roommates, diminishing the need for a parental bond at all, which seems to be the point. Sometimes agreeing to be friends and roommates is the family structure that will be the most emotionally successful—a unique set-up indeed.