Katherine Applegate
Illustrated by Charles Santoso

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Her mother called her “Odder”
from the moment
she was born.

Something about the way
the little pup never settled,
something about the way
her eyes were always
full of questions.

I love odd characters. I have been categorized as “odd” all my life, with a side of “off-putting” and “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” so I almost always side with the weirdos. These are my people – or my marine mammals, as case may be. The category is flexible.

Re: the marine mammals, this book tells the story of a young sea otter named Odder, who is rather odd as sea otters go. She was separated from her mother Ondine during a violent storm, and she washed up on the shore not far from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, known to the wild otters as Highwater. In the absence of her mother, she was found and raised by the Monterey aquarists, who did their best but didn’t really have any sort of field guide on teaching an otter to be an otter. Fortunately, Odder did well in her lessons; she also spent time socializing with some of the aquarium’s resident otters, who were given real names because they were deemed unreleasable. Though she came to like her human caretakers, she also felt the pull of the sea, and she was eventually tagged and released as Otter #156. While she found her way among the wild otters, the aquarists continued to keep tabs on her, but generally didn’t interfere.

Three years later, Odder is sweet and inquisitive, cheeky and playful. She has been doing quite well in the wild, but she retains a general affection for and fascination with the humans she sees from time to time. This has led to some too-close encounters, and she has been trapped and relocated several times by the aquarists when she got just a little too friendly. Nevertheless, her life is pretty sweet until the day she and her best friend Kairi are caught in open water by a hungry shark. Odder attacks the shark to give Kairi time to escape, but he manages to get his teeth into her just long enough to realize that she’s not the kind of food he likes. While he wanders off in a cloud of embarrassed confusion, Odder makes it to shore. The grieving aquarists find her again and take her back to the aquarium, where they patch her up and name her Jazz.

The future seems bleak, but Odder’s new life begins to look up when she is put in a different pool with Kairi, now named Twyla. After escaping the shark, Kairi was found suffering from a disease the otters call the shaking sickness (Toxoplasma gondii encephalitis), and later gave birth to a stillborn pup. Now, however, Kairi is thriving: she has recovered her health, and the aquarists have paired her with an orphaned pup. Never wild like Odder was, Kairi is content with her life in the aquarium. Domesticity comes harder to Odder, but she is eventually offered an orphaned pup of her own. Uncertain of her ability to be a responsible parent (#relatable), Odder dodges the aquarists’ attempts to bond the pair of them until she notices that her pup does not know how to play. Fueled by this heartbreaking realization, she takes the pup in hand and raises her like any good otter mother. Six months later, she says an emotional goodbye to her foster daughter, knowing that life is uncertain in the wild but that the broader world is not something to be feared.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Applegate describes the inspiration and process for writing Odder, and discusses Monterey’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) program. While Odder and Kairi are original characters, their stories are based on real otters rescued by SORAC. Kairi in particular is modeled on Toola (c. 1996-2012), the aquarium’s first successful surrogate mother. Along with two other aquarium otters, she has raised several otter pups. The surrogacy program minimized the risk of otter pups imprinting on human caretakers, and also helped sea otters come back from the brink of extinction. At the time of the book’s writing, the total wild population was about 3,000, up from the 50 Big Sur otters who originally survived the California Fur Rush; however, sea otters are still considered endangered.

This is the most adorable book I’ve read this year. It is beautifully illustrated and written entirely in free verse, which – though poetry isn’t generally my thing – works so well with the playful nature of both the story and its protagonist. If I was upset that Odder will never run free again, I also understand why the aquarists choose to keep her: her injury alone probably would have been enough, and she is too friendly towards humans, from whom the long-suffering aquarists keep trying to separate her. And, though I wasn’t expecting it when I first picked up the book, the story includes a couple of short sections written from the point of view of the aquarists as they grow to love the otters in their care. The book highlights their bittersweet goodbye when Odder is released into the wild, and their heartbreak when they realize she is unreleasable. I know I would have made the same decision in their place, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

On the whole, I have very little to say about this book. It’s just a wonderful story with charming illustrations and a lovable protagonist, and I have no notes. This is a book I can read again and again, because it seems fresh every time I pick it up. Maybe it’s the writing; maybe it’s Odder herself; maybe it’s just the simple fact that I love the sea and always have. I don’t care either way, because I am just so glad this book was recommended to me. Santoso’s illustrations are absolutely perfect, while Applegate flits from wild joy to sorrow to humor with remarkable ease, deftly weaving every possible emotion into one compact story. It’s beautiful. Though it is technically a children’s book, I still wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Odder to any animal-loving adult who will listen. I have now read it twice and have gotten otter hangover every time, and I can’t wait to read it again.

P.S. If I can just take a quick second to be a ’90s child, I have been wondering if Katherine Applegate was the same K.A. Applegate who created the Animorphs series, and I finally remembered to look it up, and it turns out she is and I really have come full circle on my childhood.