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Picture Book Tuesday: Olivia

This is the kind of book that makes a novice like me think I could write a picture book. I mean that as a compliment. The best books seem natural, almost obvious; they teach us the simplicity of humor, the joy of a perfectly crafted three-word sentence. And if we can enjoy them so precisely, then surely we would be able to write them, too--they make us all feel like best-selling authors, just waiting to crack open the notebook and begin.

What Ian Falconer pulls off with Olivia, though, is more than one mom's self-satisfied musings. He begins with the abstract first sentences we're all told to avoid: "This is Olivia. She is good at lots of things." Lines like these appear frequently throughout the story, reminiscent of first-graders' first chapter books, the most accessible words possible to the widest audience.

The mundanity risked by such vague sentences veers quickly into humor, though, as we take in Olivia herself. Illustrated also by Falconer, Olivia is a squat pig with enormous ears and a gaping mouth, clutching in her hooves a book entitled "40 Very Loud Songs." We proceed to see, over the course of the book, 62 more renditions of Olivia, 17 of which occur on the same page, a page narrated only with the following two lines: "Olivia gets dressed. She has to try on everything." Meanwhile, in and around these words, Olivia tries on a prom dress, a pair of high-top Adidas's, a two-piece bathing suit, a backwards baseball cap, a backpack, a Where's-Waldo-esque striped shirt, a tobagon, ear muffs, and much, much more.

So: mundane descriptions, embellished with wonderfully outlandish images. Olivia, "pretty good" at building sand castles, constructs a twenty-foot-tall sand imitation of the Empire State Building. Olivia "looks at [a painting of ballerinas] for a long time," then envisions herself tiara-clad, the lights suddenly dimmed, her snout extending proudly toward the audience. Olivia and her mother read "five books," "No, Olivia, only one," "How about four?" "Two," "Three," "Oh, all right, three. But that's it!" but the book they settle on is not any book--it's a book about Maria Callas, after which Olivia dreams herself back on stage, back in the prom dress, widening her snout before a microphone.

Olivia is quirky and terrible and inexhaustible. She is unexpected and brilliant and passionate. She is a pig who loves high culture (opera, ballet) but also has a penchant for sunglasses and Walkmen, the bulky kind that you clip to your belt while walking. She is a mean big sister and a sulky Time-Out participant; she's ready to be grown up, and oh-so-little-still. She's mundane. But she shows mundanity to be startling, memorable--a lesson we need reminders of as often as possible these days. When my son clambers back on my lap, asking for "Olivia, Olivia again!" I think how lovely we might look, painted, enveloped in lamplight, night falling behind us. I wonder at all the possibilities of his dreams.

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