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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear
by Tomi Ungerer
Age Range: 6-8
‘I knew I was old when I found myself on display in the window of an antique shop’. This is the opening line to this children’s classic narrated by Otto, a German-born teddy bear. Otto’s earliest memories are of being stitched together and given to David, a young Jewish boy living in Germany before the Second World War. David and his best-friend Oskar always played with Otto and they had lots of fun together. They attempt to teach him to write with disastrous consequences as Otto knocks over the ink giving himself a distinctive purple mark across his ear. Then he learns to use a typewriter which is how he comes to tell his story many years later.
The years of fun, come to an abrupt end when one day, David appears wearing a yellow star on his jacket. He and his parents are soon rounded up and taken away by the Nazis. Before he leaves David gives his precious teddy bear to his best friend Oskar.
Otto experiences the many traumas of war and when the bombing starts, a sudden explosion sends him flying through the air and into the middle of a raging battle. He is spotted by a soldier, an American G.I. who picks Otto up, but just at that moment they are both shot and then taken away to a hospital. After recovering the soldier takes Otto back to America to live with his family.
Other adventures follow until Otto finds himself in the window of the antique shop window where we first meet him at the beginning of the book. His distinctive marking proves fortuitous though, as he is eventually reunited with his old friends after 50 years.
This is a powerful and beautiful book by Tomi Ungerer. He has said that while many people can see only good and evil, he is particularly interested in the no man’s land between the two, as this is the place where lessons are learned. This is certainly evident in Otto which deals with one of the darkest chapters of history in a sensitive way as he experiences both human cruelty and kindness along the way.
This is the first English-language edition published by Phaidon of a powerful and deeply moving contribution to Holocaust literature for children, in which the world is seen through a very unusual pair of eyes. Otto is an endearing character that children (and adults) will warm to.