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Meeting an octopus with children's book author Jan Brett

Meeting an octopus with children's book author Jan Brett
Children's author Jan Brett hangs out with Gilligan, a giant Pacific octopus at Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Gilligan the octopus was putting on a show, and her aquarist was delighted.

“We can’t make any promises with an octopus,” said Angelina Komatovich, who takes care of the giant Pacific octopus at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. “Most of the time she’s hiding in a corner.”

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Not Saturday.

Gilligan’s eight arms were spread wide as she glided across the middle of her tank. As she moved, the double rows of white suckers lining each of her appendages were on full display.

“The octopus is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to draw,” said children’s book author and illustrator Jan Brett, as she stared in wonder at the alien-looking creature. “That, and the innocence of children.”

It was 8:15 a.m. and Brett and I were in for a treat. The aquarium had invited us to have a tentacles-on interaction with Gilligan in honor of Brett’s latest book, “The Mermaid,” a traditional Goldilocks tale with a mermaid and three octopuses twist.

(Note to readers: Octopuses is indeed the proper plural of octopus. I checked.)

As long time octopus lovers, we were both excited, but Brett was more prepared. She had been eating fish for the past three weeks, and had deliberately avoided garlic and onions.

“I want to taste good to her,” the author said.

Her strategy worked, almost too well. When Komatovich led us to a metal platform above Gilligan’s tank, the octopus hungrily wrapped her arms around Brett’s wrists and used her suckers to slowly guide them in the direction of her mouth.

Every once in a while, Komatovich would reach over and pull an octupus arm off Brett. The suckers made a loud, satisfying popping sound as they came unstuck. They also left behind what looked like a row of perfectly round octopus hickeys.

Children's book author and illustrator Jan Brett meets Gilligan the octopus at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

“She’s really strong,” Brett said. “I’m feeling a little alarmed.”

But she still kept her hands in the 48-degree saltwater tank and repeatedly called the octopus “Sweetie.”

Brett is an animal lover, and her more than 40 books feature a menagerie of characters including badgers, polar bears, skunks and turtles. To help make her drawings more accurate, she tries to meet the animals that appear in her illustrations in person.

She said that in her experience, octopuses are most similar to elephants in terms of personality.

“They are both mischievous,” she said. “You always have to watch your back with an elephant, and I feel the same way with the octopus.”

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What I love about octopuses is how dramatically different they are from us. They can change shape and color and they are so squishy that even a very large octopus can squeeze its body through a hole the size of a quarter.

Also, their blood is blue, they have three hearts and their pupils are horizontal slits. Seventy percent of their nerve cells are in their arms, and they taste and smell through their suckers.

And they’re smart. Komatovich has a box of toys for her eight-arm wards to keep them from getting bored.

“I’m big on octopus enrichment,” she said.

Deborah Netburn of The Times and Gilligan the giant pacific octopus at the Aquarium of the Pacific.
Deborah Netburn of The Times and Gilligan the giant pacific octopus at the Aquarium of the Pacific. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Brett said that octopuses were the perfect underwater counterpart to the three bears in the Goldilocks story because they are formidable and slightly off-putting, but also clever and adorable.

She got the idea to put the cephalopods in her book when she spotted a small pink octopus waving its arms in the current while snorkeling off the Japanese island of Okinawa.

That encounter reminded her of another experience she’d had with an octopus in an aquarium in Florida years ago, when she noticed the animal following her with its eyes.

“I was having a mind meld with this octopus. And in the back of my mind, I always remembered that this is a creature that is very undiscovered,” she said.

Before finishing “The Mermaid,” she met another octopus at the New England Aquarium in Boston, near where she lives. Under the watchful eye of the aquarist there, she was able to commune more directly with this one, arm to arm.

“She wrapped her arms around my arms and was pulling me into the tank,” Brett said. “She also used her funnel to splash us.”

It seems that splashing is a special octopus trick, because Gilligan did that too. Twice. Once she hit our shoes, but the other time she nailed us full on in the face with a cold blast of water.

Komatovich apologized, but Brett laughed it off.

She was just about to leave for a book event in the aquarium’s auditorium, and she thought it would be perfect to show up wet.

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