3 out of 5
Ethan Nicolle’s Brave Ollie Otter is a very fun, clear adventure. That’s a simple statement, and not meant to be a slight: it’s kind of refreshing that Nicolle doesn’t stretch to try to world-build some wizard landscape or lore, or overstuff his story with cutting edge memes and references; it’s a standard kids’ tale of learning to appreciate what you have, and what you can do, and it’s honest with its intentions and morals, not backpedaling them in through forced resolutions: Ollie suffers from penetrating fear of everything, and it’s adding stress to his parents’ stressful lives in trying to run a struggling restaurant, as the boy can’t even take out the garbage with scurrying back inside for fear of a monster or somesuch. While the overarching goal thus becomes for Ollie to conquer his fears, Ethan makes sure to keep that realistic throughout, underlining that everyone feels fear, and that it’s a healthy balance to bravery. Furthermore, the parent / kid relationship is kept similarly honest: there’s not a point where Ollie hates his parents or the parents are painted in an unrealistic light; they both have their ups and downs; they both continue to love one another throughout.
Y’know, with Glortches and two-headed beasts. That’s the imaginative wrinkle Nicolle lays on top of his narrative: a kid-eating goblin (the Glortch) which “seasons” its meals with fear tracks Ollie down, and, disguised as a caretaker, convinces Ollie’s parents that “she” can resolve his fear, but instead kidnaps him and turns him into a possum, allowing for the bulk of the book’s anthropomorphic adventure, in which Ollie (as a possum) learns the ins and outs of the animal world – contrasting how animals see humans as aggressors / dangers versus how Ollie saw the rest of the world as a human – while firstly trying to escape the Glortch and get back home, and secondly to, y’know, become a non-possum again.
Nicolle’s spot illustrations are wonderfully suited to bringing this all to life, specializing in expressive, cartoonish animals and humans that balance an always loose pencil line with fantastic silhouettes / designs and a great sense of motion, plus grey scales that add much depth to the pictures. It feels like we start to get less detailed imagery as the book moves along, but I also wonder if there was a recommendation to start showing things in shadow only when the textual violence kicks up a bit – scuffles between animals and Glortches and etc.
It’s also quite long for this sort of thing, the 300+ pages featuring quite a few scenes that are enjoyable to read, but feel like they hit a pause on the ticking clock Nicolle adds to the narrative – Ollie only has a certain amount of time to fix things, for various reasons – and functionally add character beats, but in a way that doesn’t directly feel relevant to the plot. A main example is a scenario where Ollie provides food for his new animal associates: it’s a well concocted scenario, and is what creates a bond between Ollie and others, but it’s an extended gambit that has more focus on particulars than ties back directly to the Glortch, making it feel like a separate tale; a story-within-a-story. There are a couple of other scenes for this, and because the overall arc is so simple, these end up feeling like a bit of a stall; a distraction.
That simplicity, while praised, does affect the tension of the book, however: I’m not sure it ever feels like Ollie is ever really in danger. You can’t push this too far in a kid’s book, that’s understood, but something about the approach here always felt safe. Perhaps because scenarios felt concocted instead of organic – another consequence of the story-within-a-story, maybe – I never hit one of those moments where I was questioning “how will Ollie get out of this one?” except when he was dealing directly with the Glortch.
But this being Nicolle’s first primarily text tale, these seem like aspects that can be sharpened should he continue to pursue this medium, which I’d encourage. The book was a lot of fun overall, maintaining Ethan’s quirky sense of humor (albeit with an excess of gross-out gags, which I guess the young ones enjoy), and I’d be interested to see him continue to develop this kind of stuff in future works.