Amelia Otter’s Mischief in the Water

Local surfer Luke McLelan’s first children’s book offers a charming tale starring a certain furry local celebrity

By Neal Kearney
July 3, 2024

Some of my first memories revolve around my nightly bedtime stories, read to me by my mom and dad, just before being carried away into slumber. I would listen intently as they sat on the edge of my bed, reading me tales of adventure, friendship, and self-growth. As I lay, transfixed by the whimsical plot lines, my eyes poured over the art that seemed to fill the pages to the brim with endless detail. 

The way these authors, and the talented artists who brought their visions to life, crafted these books was nothing short of spell-binding. Their ability to capture young imaginations and transport them to fantastical realms of intrigue on a consistent basis fostered, in kids like me, a deep appreciation for storytelling—one that often carries over into a lifetime of reading. Coming from Santa Cruz, it would have meant so much to me to have had access to a story that took place here in town, with a main character crazy about another one of my other developing passions, surfing.

Local nurse and lifelong surfer, Luke McLelan, has just published a new children’s book, Amelia Otter’s Mischief in the Water, that’s done just that. Skillfully illustrated by Nate Banuelos, and inspired by infamous Steamer Lane local, Otter 841, McLelan’s story introduces readers to Amelia, a local otter bitten by the surf bug who is faced with a moral quandary after another selfish surfer attempts to steal her stoke by telling her that otters don’t belong  in the surf.

Along the way, she learns important lessons about tolerance and cooperation as she navigates the disappointing waters of  exclusion and alienation. In the end, Amelia captures the admiration of the public and learns to share the waves with everyone, even the greedy grump who tried to have her banned from the lineups she learned to love so much.

Like other effective children’s book authors, McLelan weaves his tale with morals and messaging in a way that never feels overbearing or preachy. Much like how the exploits of Winnie the Pooh and the Berenstain Bears were genius in the manner they extolled the author’s values without relying on overt indoctrination, his story imparts it’s wisdom using language and imagery that appeals to that of the developing mind, without using a heavy hand. For young ocean enthusiasts, it’s a great reminder that the waves belong to all of us, and can be enjoyed peacefully if we all work together.

I recently sat down with McLelan to ask him about the origins of his charming tale. Here is what he had to say.

Luke’s COVID work uniform

What gave you the idea to write a children’s book? Did you toy with any other ideas or was it Otter 841 from the get-go? 

The creation of the book is kind of interesting. I work as a nurse in the Emergency Department at Dominican Hospital. During Covid times I started drawing on our white board at work just to liven things up a little. Life was a little bleak around there during those times. I would usually draw a new animal and keep it up there for a few days (I drew a toucan during my shift today).

Last summer, I was getting ready to treat a patient who was having a heart attack. I had some time on my hands before the ambulance arrived, so I thought I would work on my drawing of Otter 841, since she was recently in the news. As the ambulance rolled up, one medic saw my drawing and told me that they’d met someone recently who’d been harassed by the mischievous otter who was pretty upset about it and wanted her caught (laughs).

I thought that it could make a great story, so after my shift that evening I began writing. When I finished my first draft I thought it was pretty funny and that it could be a cool children’s book.

The inspiration for Amelia

Did you look to any other children’s books for inspiration? If so, what do you think you found made these stories so effective in your eyes and how did you use these examples to guide your story? 

I didn’t really look at other books for inspiration, since I wrote it all in one evening, but I definitely had the inspirations built into me. My favorite books growing up were Where The Wild Things Are and Curious George. I feel like Amelia Otter has the same feel of a lovable, but naughty character, like the characters in those books.

One interesting thing that most people probably haven’t discovered yet is that there is an Easter Egg in the book. One of my favorite books growing up (and Nathan’s as well) was Good Night Moon. One of the best parts of that book was finding the hidden mouse on every page. As a tribute to that book, Amelia Otter has a seagull buddy with her on every page when she is out in the wild. It is pretty cool when I hear a parent tell me that their kid loves looking for the seagull every time they read it.

Describe the process of writing your book. What’s your approach to storytelling? What were the hardest parts for you to get right?

When I put my kids to bed at night, if they make it to bed on time with their  teeth brushed, I tell them a bedtime story. The only catch is they get to pick what it is about. They give me two animals and I have to make up a story about them on the spot. This is basically what I did with the book. I just sat down one day and wrote it down quickly. The hardest part was refining it. I really hate taking things out, but I knew that every word had to be concise.

Pulling sentences and even some pages out was the hardest part for sure. One of the best things I did was show it to people who I trust to be honest with me and tell me what needed to change. My buddy, Brian has a very critical eye and he was able to help me refine it and show me that the pictures were a major part of the story telling and that I could actually say less and let the artwork tell the tale.

Refining Amelia

Let’s talk bout the art. How long did that part take? How did you choose an artist with the skills that would lend themselves to the tale you had in mind? How did you work with the artist to make sure you got everything right? 

So, I drew all of the images to convey the story and then I put them into a word document, printed it, and stapled it together to show to people. I figured I could easily find someone who would be stoked to take on the project, but that wasn’t the case. I quickly realized that most artists are pretty busy, and they don’t really want to work on a children’s book without being paid in advance (I didn’t really consider that they’d have to produce 35-40 pieces of original art, including the covers and extra interior pages).

Asking someone to make that many pieces of art, with no guarantee of ever being compensated for it is a pretty big ask when you think about it.  After getting shot down for a while, I started to get a little bit frustrated and wondered if I could even pull it off. Luckily, my buddy Tim hit me up and said he knew a cool tattoo artist named Nate that he met out while surfing the Hook who would possibly be interested, so he gave me his number. I shot Nate a text and told him about the story and my idea for it and to my surprise he said he’d do it.

Pick up a copy today!

“I had no idea how lucky I was. I found out later that Nate Bañuelos is a well-known tattoo artist and an incredible illustrator. I sent him a digital copy of the book with my drawings and then I was blown away when he sent me his rough sketches. There was nothing I had to do to make sure the art was right.”

I think the fact that Nate is a surfer who lived in Santa Cruz made everything come together perfectly. He took my drawing and words and blew them up in beautiful story telling pages. When I put his drawings onto the pages I almost wondered if we even really needed the words to tell the story. I honestly feel like you could just take some of the pages out of the book, put them into a frame, and you’d have a pretty cool piece of art. I got really lucky when Nate agreed to take the project on and we have had a great time brainstorming and working together.

Banuelos’ style perfectly brought Amelia to life on the page

What makes Otter 841’s story such a great premise for a children’s book?

I think Otter 841’s story makes such a great children’s book because it involves one of the cutest and most loveable animals imaginable. It’s an outlaw tale that the parents like reading too. I don’t know why, but I feel like everyone loves an outlaw tale. When your kids want you to read them a bedtime story, it is so much better when it is a story that you like too and don’t mind reading. It sounds like a cliché, but I really wanted it to be a story for the whole family.

Luke grew up surfing in and around Pleasure Point

What kinds of morals or social commentary were you trying to convey in your storytelling? Was this difficult to achieve? Why is surfing such a good framework for espousing sharing and coexistence? 

I don’t think I originally set out to convey a moral message, but I wrote from what I knew and my experiences. When I step back to look at it, I think it is a book about respect.  As you know, growing up in Santa Cruz as a surfer was a unique experience. We had to show respect and learn our place in the line up. I feel like Amelia Otter is a relatable story for someone who shows up in town and falls in love with surfing and has to learn the ins and outs of the new subculture. It is most importantly a story about respect for the ocean and all the animals who live in it. The animal are the ultimate locals after all. Surfing is something that I have used to teach life lessons to my kids about sharing and showing respect for the ocean and their elders.

What’s the response been like so far? What might you do differently in your next book? 

The response has been way more than I ever expected. I honestly thought it would just be a fun story for my friends and kids, but I have been overwhelmed with the amount of people who want me to sign their books and read at their events. I found my book on ebay, Barnes and Nobel and even Walmart. I have no idea how that works, but I’m trying to figure it out (laughs).


“The next time I do this, I will definitely have the business side figured out first. I had no idea what I was taking on when I started this project. I figured I’d just write a book and get some shops to pick it up. I had no clue what I was getting myself into. It has definitely grown into something much bigger than I originally expected, for sure.” 


Luke and his first children’s book, Amelia Otter’s Mischief in the Water

What are some of the best things about writing a children’s book?

One of my favorite things has been reading to kids. I have read my book at a few schools in the area, and I recently read to the kids at the Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery. We partnered up with Marianne’s Ice Cream and gave out free scoops of Otter 841 flavor. One of our biggest goals has been to donate our books to pediatric hospitals. I have a son who has asthma, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time with him in the hospital. During those stays I realized how important it is to have fun games, puzzles, and books in there. Nate and I really feel strongly about getting our book into all of the pediatric hospitals in California. One of the highlights of my year was being able to go up to Stanford and read to the kids at Lucille Packard. If anyone has any pediatric hospital connections, please hit us up.

Can we look forward to anymore tales about Amelia aka Otter 841? Where might her next adventures take her? 

There is rumor that there could be a sequel… I’ve got to wait for the dust to settle after finishing this first book, but keep your eyes peeled for, “Amelia Otter Has A Daughter”.

A local surf star is born!

Where is your book available for purchase? 

Right now it is available on Amazon and through my website at, but I’m working hard to get the hardbacks into local shops. My ultimate goal is to get it into the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Any shout outs/thank you’s /final words to close out the interview?

I really want to thank my wife, kids, and family for backing me on this crazy adventure. I want to thank all of the wonderful staff at Dominican Hospital Emergency Department. They have be so supportive and have given me so much encouragement. I would love to thank Meg Igno, from the Farm Bakery, the Bargetto family, and Carrie Hunter from Zen for giving me business advice. Big thanks to Brian Baer for helping me with endless versions of the cover, trying to get it right, and thanks to my brother Jake for his marketing skills. A huge thanks goes out to the people of Santa Cruz and their amazing amount of support, it’s been more than anything I ever expected