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Literature / Ellen and Otis

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Ellen and Otis is a two-book series written by Beverly Cleary, following the daily exploits of the titular characters in Portland, Oregon.

The series consists of:

  • Ellen Tebbits (1951) — Third-grader Ellen lives on Tillamook Street and attends Rosemont School, and early on befriends the new girl in town, Austine Allen. However, one day, the two girls have a brief falling-out after a misunderstanding.
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  • Otis Spofford (1953) — Ellen Tebbits and her troublemaking classmate Otis Spofford are in the fourth grade, and the story follows Otis's point of view as he looks for ways to liven up his life, until he goes too far in his teasing of Ellen one day.


Both books contain examples of:

  • Ambiguously Absent Parent: Otis Spofford's mom takes care of him and runs the dance school, but his father John Spofford never appears in either book, and his name is only known by virtue of the first book referring to Otis's mother as "Mrs. John Spofford" briefly.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Otis has a tendency to get in trouble during class because he finishes his schoolwork ahead of time.
  • Jerkass: Otis Spofford. Played straight in Ellen Tebbits and deconstructed in his own book.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Ellen Tebbits and Otis Spofford, to each other. Otis got started antagonizing Ellen because his mother is Ellen's ballet teacher (and he likes to see Ellen get mad), and he's usually (but not always) the instigator.
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  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Ellen Tebbits is the girly girl to her tomboy best friend Austine Allen.

Ellen Tebbits contains examples of:

  • Armor-Piercing Slap: In one chapter, Austine has been annoying Ellen all day by untying the sash of her dress, and when Ellen feels her sash get untied again, she decides it's The Last Straw, whirls around and slaps Austine across the face. Only it isn't Austine who untied the sash this time... it's Otis.
  • Car Ride Games: At one point, Ellen and Austine play the Alphabet Game (searching for letters on signs) in the car.
  • Comedic Underwear Exposure: Pointed out by Otis in the "biennial beet" chapter when he notices that Ellen tore her dress.
  • Coordinated Clothes: In one chapter, Ellen and Austine decide to dress like twins for the first day of school and ask their mothers to make them matching dresses. It doesn't turn out the way they hoped, as Austine's mother isn't a particularly good seamstress and Austine's dress turns out badly.
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  • Embarrassment Plot: Ellen and Austine met and became best friends because they were both getting changed in the broom cupboard due to their embarrassment about wearing woolen underwear, which they think is too old-fashioned. Ellen also has a moment of trying to awkwardly do ballet while her underwear was slipping.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: Ellen Tebbits's plan to bring in a biennial beet to class results in her making her clothes filthy from digging the beet up, and ruining her dress by getting it stained with beet juice. Plus she almost gets in a lot of trouble for taking the beet without permission, and does get written up for arriving to school late.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Ellen has this reaction in the first chapter of the book, when she lashes out at Austine, who has just moved to Portland from California, for talking about California all the time. She apologizes afterward and the two become friends.
    • Later, she has this reaction immediately after slapping Austine across the face for allegedly untying the sash of her dress, thus seemingly ending their friendship. It doesn't help later when she finds out that the culprit was Otis, and not Austine.
  • Plot-Mandated Friendship Failure: Between Ellen and Austine, due to the Armor-Piercing Slap the former gives the latter.
  • Rebound Best Friend: When Ellen and Austine stop being friends, Austine tries hanging out with Linda instead.
  • School Play: Ellen's class puts on a production of The Pied Piper of Hamelin with a Bowdlerised ending: in their version, the Pied Piper brings the children home and the kids get to do a maypole dance.
  • Uncool Undies: Early on, Ellen is fearful that the other kids will find out her mother makes her wear long underwear, so she takes care to get to ballet class ahead of time so she can change early without her classmates noticing. One of the catalysts for her friendship with Austine is that Austine's mother also makes her daughter wear long underwear.

Otis Spofford contains examples of:

  • Arc Words: Various adults keep warning Otis that "[he'll] get his comeuppance."
  • Asshole Victim: Otis, in the final chapter, when Ellen and Austine finally get the better of him and when even his close friends, Stewy and George, side with the girls against him (of course, they have their own reasons to enjoy witnessing Otis's comeuppance). Even though Otis has it coming, one can't help feeling at least a little sorry for him.
  • Big Brother Instinct: When Austine's older brother Bruce catches Otis bullying her and Ellen one day, he suggests that they turn the tables and bully him (the implication being that he would beat Otis up if he tried to retaliate).
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Averted, since Otis does his best to get into trouble. Otis's class puts on a fake bullfight as part of a school performance, and Otis (as the front half of the bull) goes off script and causes the bull to win the fight. As the teacher is preparing to chew him out, several parents approach and tell her how hilarious the fight was and what a good idea it was to have the bull win. Otis doesn't get in trouble from the teacher, and outruns the two boys who played the toreador and the back half of the bull.
  • A Day in the Limelight: Otis Spofford is the title character of this book after having originally had a supporting role in Ellen Tebbits.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: Invoked when Otis cuts Ellen's hair and, rather than laugh, the class just stares at Otis. Otis even realizes right before he does it that he's going way too far; however, when Ellen calls his bluff, pride prevents him from backing down and he does it.
  • Humiliation Conga: Happens to Otis at the end of his book. Ellen and Austine steal his shoes while he's ice skating in retaliation for Otis having cut Ellen's hair, making him walk home in his ice skates to the amusement of all the kids and irritation of all the adults he meets.
  • Lying Finger Cross: Invoked by both Ellen and Otis himself or, in the terminology of the book, "having kings." Ellen invokes it when pretending to apologize for having called Otis "Big Chief Pink Underwear." At the end of the book, after Ellen and Austine return his boots to him on the promise that he won't tease Ellen anymore, Otis reveals to Ellen that he had his fingers crossed when he made that promise.
  • Not So Different: When the class does a science experiment on two rats about a healthy diet, feeding one rat healthy food and the other white bread and soda pop. The rat with the unhealthy food looks so miserable that Otis and Ellen, independently, start sneaking him real food. They're both astonished when they realize — Otis thought Ellen wouldn't care about a rat, and Ellen thought Otis wouldn't care at all.
  • Production Foreshadowing: One chapter has the titular character doing a favor for an older boy from Zachary Taylor High School, and mentions his team will be playing Benjamin Harrison High School. Eleven years later, Cleary would release Ribsy, the final Henry Huggins book, in which Ribsy ends up at a football game between these same two schools.
  • Radish Cure: In one chapter, Otis's teacher has him make spitballs exclusively as punishment for shooting them. Otis sees this as a Cool and Unusual Punishment at first, until he realizes that it prevents him from participating in class and also dries his mouth out once he's run out of spit.
  • Red Sock Ruins the Laundry: Otis comes to school in a pink undershirt at one point. He claims it's because his mom accidentally put one of his glow-in-the-dark socks in with the rest of the laundry, though the other students don't care about the cause; they just mock him for having pink underwear at all.
  • Took a Level in Badass / Took a Level in Jerkass: Ellen Tebbits gets both in this book. It's hard to imagine the Ellen of Ellen Tebbits teasing Otis for his pink underwear, or literally shoving Otis to the ground, but she does both here. Just before shoving him down, she tells Otis it's because she's not afraid of him anymore.
  • Those Two Guys: Two boys named Stewart and George. They're friends with each other and sometimes friendly but sometimes antagonistic towards Otis.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Otis gives Ellen one as revenge for humiliating him in class. At first he doesn't understand why she's so upset, until he remembers that Ellen has been letting her hair grow long enough to braid.
  • Villain Protagonist: Otis himself, the class troublemaker and all-around nuisance, is the main character.
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