We live in an age of series picture books. Which, like having 27 McDonalds in every city, makes shopping a little less complicated for tired, stressed out parents. You know what you’re getting with McDonalds, while the mom and pop restaurant down the road is an unknown quantity. The bad news, though, is that not every McDonalds is equal. For instance, at one visit to a McDonalds in Mississippi years ago, I found a roach in a friend’s coke. After he had finished drinking the coke. Still, even middle of the road consistency is worth a lot in this crazy world, especially when it comes to entertaining hyper-active, demanding, over-stimulated kids. And if my children liked the first few Olivia books I bought them, and the TV show, and the dolls, and the books based on the TV show, and the dolls based on the TV show books….why not just grab the next one on the shelf?
The truth is, Ian Falconer’s Olivia has always had an independent streak. Since her first appearance, she has drawn comparisons to Eloise, Kay Thompson’s and Hilary Knight’s imaginative rebel from the 1950s. As the Amazon.com review pronounces, “Olivia would be Eloise, if Eloise were a pig.” She is cheeky, full of outlandish ideas, and not much concerned with making anyone happy but herself. She’s an hilariously accurate picture of a three- or four-year-old—saying and doing just the sort of things that, when my own daughters do them, I have to stuff down the laughter like a tutu in snow boot. And the art is just genius. It pulls you in with bright red scarfs and dresses and striped bathing suits, while otherwise sparking the reader’s imagination with minimalist sketches and black lines.
But for all that, I’ve never been a huge Olivia fan. Mostly because I’m pretty sensitive when it comes to treating authorities with respect. Sure, I want my kids to think for themselves. But when I yell stop, I want them pause long enough for me to grab them before they run into the street. And believe it or not, my kids don’t need any encouragement to blow me off. They seem to have it bundled with their source code.
I know lots of moral people like Olivia, and since I haven’t seen much of the TV program, who knows, she may have grown into a truly American golden child by now? Er, make that golden pig. Still, when you’re standing in front of the Olivia section of your library or bookstore balancing 14 other books in one arm and trying to explain why books must not be eaten or licked before checking out, you may want to skip over one book, Olivia Saves the Circus. Or at least be prepared to write your own ending.
In this book, Olivia is supposed to tell her class about her summer vacation. So, she energetically describes in glowing detail her trip to the circus, where “All the circus people were out sick with ear infections,” says Olivia. “Luckily I knew how to do everything.” (See? I told you she was hilarious.) Olivia then goes on to outline all of her exploits at the circus–how she bravely took over everything from the flying trapeze to the high wire. When her teacher doubts her, she never falters:
“Was that true?” Olivia’s teacher asks.
“Pretty true,” says Olivia.
“Pretty all true.”
“Are you sure, Olivia?”
“To the best of my recollection.”
And so we have in this book, Olivia telling a lie—albeit a wonderfully imaginative and fantastic one—to her class and teachers, and no one cares. Olivia isn’t bothered. Her author Ian Falconer isn’t bothered. The critics from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal aren’t bothered. And apparently I’m not supposed to be bothered either.
But even if I were hip enough to wink and smile, I’ll tell you one person who would be bothered. My oldest kid. We own another book in which a character engages in just such “strong sense of self” and “vivid imagination.” And each time we read it, she reminds me that he’s telling a lie, and that he shouldn’t do that, and that if he will repent and tell Jesus he’s sorry, he can be forgiven and happy again. And I figure the book is worth its weight in gold, just for that exercise each time we read it.
So, if Olivia ever comes to play at my house, I think I’ll let my precocious Eloise explain that to her. I have to admit, I don’t expect it will do any good, but you never can tell how the truth will play with kids. Or pigs for that matter, even if they are–like my daughter–headstrong and predisposed to wearing red tutus.
Which sort of brings up another subject. What would you do if you accidentally got your kids a BAD book? Any other suggestions on how to make it a positive experience? Also, can you recommend any other strong, imaginative heroes that parents might like instead?
More at Redeemed Reader: A review of a picture book we can recommend without reservation, All We Like Sheep. Other picture book related posts: Kevin Twit’s podcast on The Jesus Story Bible, Buying Your First Story Bible and The Whole Counsel of God: Complementing Your Story Bible.