For this first review, I decided to write on a book that has become something of a modern classic.
Ian Falconer’s Olivia, which chronicles a day in the life of the titular pig-girl, was a Caldecott finalist in 2001, and in 2007 the National Education Association ranked it in the top half of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.” It has also inspired about ten sequels and a TV show. Had I read Olivia when it debuted, I would not have guessed it would generate this kind of phenomenon, but I doubt the fame comes as any surprise to our precocious title character. If you need to know one thing about Olivia, it is that she knows she is fated for greatness.
And if you need to know one thing about the book, it is that it is smart — smarter, that is, than it lets on at first. Like the best picture books, it is a blessing for parents in that it feels richer, not emptier, the more times you read it.
The character Olivia is based, I am not sure how loosely, on the author’s niece. She is a two-and-a-half-foot diva, and her day is remarkable not for what she does, but for the personality with which she does it. After she wakes, she lugs the cat that is almost her same size to the bathroom, where she brushes her teeth and combs her ears, and then she lugs him back to her bedroom, where she tries on every garment in her possession, earmuffs included. When it is bedtime, she insists her exasperated mother read her not one, but three, separate stories.
If the book is funny, it is because these examples of Olivia’s excess are narrated with glib understatement. My favorite, I think, is Olivia’s trip to the beach. The narrator tells us she has “got pretty good” at building sandcastles, while in the picture we see that Olivia has constructed a perfect replica of the Empire State Building. The narrator tells us that when Olivia’s mother sees that she has had enough sun, they go home, while in the picture — the only one to include a color other than black, white, or red — we see that Olivia is a stunning shade of pink.
I confess that my first impression was that the book’s illustrations, like its plot, were uncomplicated. It surprised me that Falconer’s sparse, mostly monochromatic drawings would receive Caldecott’s stamp of honor. Sure, they are cute, and I think it says something that the artist-author is able to capture Olivia’s cantankerousness in the face and body of a more or less anatomically correct piglet. However, they are very unlike the lush expansiveness of, say, Jumanji or The Polar Express.
But that was only my first impression. Now having read Olivia somewhere in the vicinity of twenty times, I have decided its illustrations are, in fact, its best feature. They are what make the book memorable; they are how Falconer conveys the force of Olivia’s personality. The Empire State sand sculpture is one example. It stands out on the page in size (it towers), but also in style. The shaded drawing contrasts with the simpler, sketchier Olivia, and thus we understand Olivia’s perception of her own creation. Her sculpture does not just look like the Empire State Building, it is an architectural wonder on par with the Empire State Building.
Like I mentioned before, if I had read Olivia in 2000, I would have been unable to predict that by 2013 she would have become such a cultural mainstay. But, based on this first interaction with her — I have not yet picked up the sequels or tuned into the TV show — I am thankful for her presence. In addition to the quality of the book, I am glad for a pop culture character I bet a lot of kids, boys and girls alike, can relate to. She may have hooves and a snout, but Olivia is a lot more human than, say, any of the characters in Disney’s shameless princess chain.
But perhaps I speak to soon. Olivia was just a toddler when this book propelled her to stardom, and now she is a full-fledged teenager. As Miley Cyrus recently reminded us, teen starlets do not always grow into ideal role models.
Fortunately, Olivia has somebody to look up to. Question is, does she like frogs?
The Bottom Line: Dusty recommends this book. Jayden, who is not very attentive yet to drawings, is impartial. He prefers Pete the Cat.