The Washington Post
Why Olivia is an indelible children’s book character
At the sad news of Ian Falconer’s death at 63 this week, I thought of Venice, though I have never been there. What came to mind was not the city itself, but the many gelatos that Falconer’s spunky picture-book heroine Olivia eats before and after her family’s travails on their sinking gondola while in the Italian city. When my sons were in preschool, they never tired of counting up the outrageous number of gelatos that Olivia’s parents hand out to their little piglets in Falconer’s wondrous mixed-media scenes in his 2009 book “Olivia Goes to Venice.”
Falconer contributed more than 30 cover designs for the New Yorker but was best known — to children and parents, anyway — for his “Olivia” books. Over the course of eight indelible stories, Olivia invented many wondrous feats for herself, marching into the kitchen as a one-piglet band or saving a whole circus. Whatever the feat, Olivia made it happen with pizazz.
We read most of the Olivia books in their Spanish translations; Marcela Brovelli renders Falconer’s understated humor with sly accuracy. As Olivia eats one helado after another through Venice, we’d add extra flavors, frutilla, the word for strawberry in the Chilean Spanish we speak at home, and crema de mani. That peanut butter is not a likely flavor anywhere in Italy didn’t matter. The point was to join Olivia — to linger on each page a little longer, laughing at what happens when she scatters corn in the plaza, marveling at the great spectacle of pigeons that descend from the sky and pursue her.
Falconer trusted his readers to figure out what was funny. He never ruined a scene with unnecessary explanation. Falconer, like Natalie Babbitt, didn’t underestimate the instincts of children, who, Babbitt said, “are far more perceptive and wise than American books give them credit for being.” Falconer granted Olivia a degree of idiosyncrasy often missing in picture books — her quirky commitment to red clothes and her inclination to push every idea as far as she can, to find out if she is capable of banging on every household instrument at once.
Falconer expressed embarrassment, and surprise, at the worldwide reception his books received. He hadn’t intended to become a beloved writer of children’s books any more than Tove Jansson did, with her endearing family of eccentric Moomins. Falconer and Jansson were both artists above all, drawn to convey a human sensibility that couldn’t be mistaken for any other, which it turns out, appeals to children as much as it does to adults. Kids don’t want characters with a lesson to impart. They want to read about beings as spunky and imaginatively alive as Olivia, with her determination to save a circus, to become Queen of the Trampoline and train little dogs who pee all over the circus ring, even if her adventures are true, she admits, only “to the best of my recollection.”
Long after my children’s peak Olivia years, when they were old enough to sit and read a novel on a long flight, we made it to Rome for a few days. We passed our first gelato store an hour after breakfast and I said no. “But Olivia got gelatos all day long,” my older son replied, and I reminded him that Olivia also drew Jackson Pollock imitations on her bedroom wall and I didn’t let him do that either. “Por favor,” he pleaded with me, reminding me of how much I’d loved reading Olivia, how much we all had, and I gave in. We got gelato shortly after breakfast, and it was delicious.
Idra Novey is a poet and novelist whose books include “Ways to Disappear” and, most recently, “Take What You Need.”