Eloise nearly jumped out of her stroller when she saw the stack of books at Borders bearing the trademark Olivia title – oversized, all-caps letters gleaming in red and white. I wasn’t far behind her; I was thrilled at the idea of introducing a new story line to our nighttime ritual. We’ve been reading the same five copies of Olivia’s various adventures every night since Eloise was old enough to ask for a book by name. “Just two Olivias tonight, Mommy,” she’ll say, a plea she picked up from Olivia herself.
So we snatched up our copy of “Olivia Goes to Venice,” which debuted at the end of September. We must have read it at least a half-dozen times the first day, but with each recitation, I had the growing feeling that something about this book was missing a part of what made the first five installments so special.
“Something is not right!” to quote Miss Clavel.
To begin with, I was surprised Falconer had even released another Olivia title. I recalled an interview I read in USA Today years ago. It was published at the time he released “Olivia… and the Missing Toy,” the third in the series. The newspaper reported: “He has plans for at least one more Olivia book – something about Christmas and presents – and then he may stop. ‘Four is kind of a nice number for a series,’ he says.”
Falconer did, in fact, write his Christmas book (“Olivia Helps with Christmas”), as well as “Olivia Forms a Band,” which chronicled Oliva’s determined efforts to create her own one-man-band with intentions of performing at a fireworks display.
We adore each and every one of these books. And I mean really, really love them – Eloise was even given the middle name Olivia out of my admiration for this feisty, confidant and imaginative pig. So, you can imagine I feel a little more protective of the series than most readers.
I suspect the Olivia brand, with its Nick Jr. animated series, has become so lucrative that Falconer can hardly say “no” to readers’ demands for “more Olivias.” And I would honesty be thrilled to see the series continue without end, if only Falconer would stay true to what made him a phenomenal success from the get-go.
When Olivia made her debut in 2000, critics rhapsodized over his minimalist illustrations, done in simple charcoal on white backgrounds with a splash of red gouache paint. He was deservedly compared to the great Hilary Knight, who brought Eloise to life in a palette of black, white and pink.
The New York Times wrote the following in a 2001 feature on Falconer:
“Mr. Falconer, a designer to the end, insisted that the cover of ‘Olivia’ show only the porcine protagonist on a white page underneath the book’s title, with no subtitle, background art of even the author’s name. The results are both stark and embraceable. Even among other publishers, ‘it’s become a standard for beautiful design,’ said Stephanie Bart-Horvath, an art director in the children’s book division of HarperCollins.”
Falconer also sparingly incorporates photographic images into his illustrations – artwork by Degas and Pollock, a poster of Eleanor Roosevelt, a photograph of the Egyptian Sphinx, etc. Colors other than red have always been used sparsely and always with intention: blue in “Olivia forms a Band,” green in “Olivia… and the Missing Toy,” pink in “Olivia Saves the Circus,” green and a bit of yellow in “Olivia Helps with Christmas.”
“There are plenty of terrific picture books, although I suppose mine look different,” Falconer told USA Today back in 2003. “Many have so many colors and details. Mine are clean and spare, so maybe they stick out.”
Sadly, it’s a completely different story in “Olivia goes to Venice.” The cover speaks volumes about Falconer’s out-of-character approach. Gone is the uncomplicated portrait of Olivia. In its place is a dust jacket overwhelmed with color, a photo of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute stealing the show.
Nearly every page features full-spread photos of Venice’s landmarks. In addition, Falconer has accented his illustration with every color of the rainbow. His beautiful family of charcoal pigs almost seems out of place amongst this clutter.
In a You Tube video released before its publication, Falconer explained that the book was inspired by a childhood trip he made with his family to Venice and a subsequent visit he made as an adult. His impression of the city offers insight into how his work has been affected:
“It’s very different that Paris or London or any other European city, because it’s full of color. It’s bright, bright, bright colors everywhere – yellow, ochre, rust reds and gold. And then the barber poles in the water – you know, where they tie up the gondolas. It’s overwhelming. Olivia is just basically me in the book enjoying Venice for the first time.”
Falconer has accurately captured the overwhelming color qualities of Venice but, in the process, has overwhelmed the reader who has come to appreciate Olivia in her simple palette of black, white and red. This book is more a tribute to Falconer’s travels than one that honors a character who has claimed a place in picture book history. And the overall affect of his use of color and photography leaves the book feeling like one of the “As Seen on Nickelodean” paperbacks that summarize episodes of the animated series in full-color computer illustrations.
While the book is also wordy (I know, so am I) and the obsession with gelato seems a little forced, it is certainly not without its merits. The illustrations may have been compromised, but Olivia’s character has not.
Unsurprisingly, it is Olivia who “decided that she and her family ought to spend a few days in Venice.” As far as she’s concerned, she’s always in charge. And, as usual, we delight in observing the mischief Olivia inevitably finds: getting searched by airport security, drawing the attention of flocks of pigeons and taking out the bell tower in Venice’s Piazza San Marco.
Olivia’s search for the perfect souvenir is the true delight of this book, and I love that Falconer concluded the story as he’s done all the others: Olivia’s soundly sleeping and dreaming of self-grandeur. And to be completely honest, there’s nothing that would have kept me from adding this title to our beloved Olivia collection.
I vow to seldom, if ever again, spend time on this blog panning a book. I mean, why would anyone want to spend their time reading one of my tomes when I’m not even going to give you an idea for something new to read your children? But, in the case of Ian Falconer, one assumes his Olivia books are foolproof, and I honestly wondered if anyone else had the same reaction to this book as I did. Thoughts?