For this week’s Winner’s Wednesday, I have selected one of my personal childhood favorites, Olivia, which was written and illustrated by Ian Falconer and received a Caldecott Honor in 2001. Olivia is a beloved tale about a one-of-a-kind pig going about her daily life. Her personality is revealed to be both lovable and relatable as she goes through the motions of her daily activities which include nagging her parents and sibling, visiting the beach, and resisting nap time. All readers can identify with some aspect of Olivia’s unique and defiant personality.
In addition to its lovability as a text, Olivia has received its most prestigious recognition, a Caldecott Honor, for its illustrations. Remarkably, Falconer manages to make a very aesthetically pleasing color scheme of black, white, and red engaging for young readers. This is no small feat! The illustrations are clean and usually minimalistic. Although he is loyal to consistent characters and themes throughout, he varies elements of his illustrations across pages. For instance, at times his characters stand alone against white backdrops, while in other instances, they are depicted in a detailed environment. He effectively produces many singular images on a single page to illustrate phenomena such as Olivia trying on outfits or completing her various daily activities. While ordinarily this technique could cause confusion in young readers, Falconer’s intent is clearly communicated. The copious white space does not bore the reader, but rather it contributes to a clean aesthetic and serves to highlight the individual illustrations.
As I sat down to reread this story, I was reminded of my favorite page: the one in which Olivia builds a pristine replica of the Empire State Building out of sand. This moment is funny because this incredible sand feat is accompanied by the caption “she got pretty good.” Needless to say, pretty good is an understatement. Furthermore, he does not include any text on the verso page, thus amplifying the understated nature of his caption. This is a glowing example of how illustrations can add a layer of depth to the story that would otherwise be missing. By juxtaposing this sand masterpiece with this minimizing description, Falconer introduces humor and adds personality to the story through his irony and casualness.
While most of the illustrations are clean and rather minimalist, Falconer reproduces the works of Pollack and Degas with notable precision on the pages in which Olivia goes to an art museum. Imposed on the white backdrop, these works of art are made even more astounding. I especially love that Falconer chose to feature real works of art in this imaginary scene. This decision exposes young readers to celebrated art and introduces them to different styles such as abstract and impressionism, which could inspire their own works of art (as it does Olivia’s). Furthermore, Falconer includes Olivia’s opinion of the artwork, including her lack of admiration for Pollack’s splatter paint technique. This not only serves to develop Olivia as a character who is unafraid to speak her mind, but also, it introduces children to the notion that art is up for interpretation.
Olivia is a one-of-a-kind. She speaks her mind, she is ambitious, and she has authentic and meaningful interactions with those around her. Not only is she hilarious, but she is relatable. Readers of all ages can identify with some aspect of Olivia’s multifaceted personality, making Olivia a universally relevant story. But Olivia would not be remembered the way it is today if not for the extremely accomplished and effective illustrations. Falconer augments the ironic, hilarious, and relatable text of the story with his clean, understated illustrations that add depth to the story and at times a “wow” factor. Olivia is and will continue to be a fixture in the libraries of young readers.