Some of the books I read to my children I know I’ll donate to a Little Free Library in a couple of years. But others, like our collection of Ian Falconer’s Olivia stories, will remain in my possession forever. Ian Falconer, at 63, has died, and I am just devastated for his family, for the niece and nephews who inspired his stories, for the creativity and art he still had in him, I’m sure. But I am grateful that his light lives on with Olivia the Pig, that generations of children who have yet to meet Olivia and her family can still find her and feel her spirit deep within themselves as my own daughters have — as I have too.
Olivia was originally a Christmas gift for Falconer’s then 3-year-old niece Olivia, and since its publication in 2000, it has become a prominent fixture on children’s bookshelves. I didn’t have my first daughter until 2014, and when I went shopping at Barnes & Noble with her, there Olivia still sat, front and center on the shelves.
No character has resonated with my children quite like Olivia, but I’ve yet to find a mother figure in a story who feels as similar to me as Olivia’s mom
We’ve bought the sequels, including Olivia Saves Christmas and the last Olivia story, published in 2017, Olivia the Spy, but nothing hits quite like the original. It’s the illustrations — the black and white with splashes of red — and the simplicity of the story, sure, but it’s also Olivia. The pig who is just a little bit naughty, but not in a particularly malicious way, the pig who has a lot of questions and a lot of opinions, the pig who is a lot like my own daughters.
No character has resonated with my children quite like Olivia, but I’ve yet to find a mother figure in a story who feels as similar to me as Olivia’s mom. “You know, you really wear me out, but I love you anyway,” is her famous line in the book, one she says to her daughter as she tucks her in for bed, after a day at the museum and a day of painting on the walls and a day of arguing about how many books to read. It is, truly, the most perfect parenting quote. And Olivia’s response — “I love you anyway, too” — is full of so much. It’s rare that a story makes you feel and see both sides so clearly. The little girl who’s just trying to be creative and paint, what’s the big deal? The mom who loves her kid so much and would never try to extinguish her light, but good grief she’s gotta survive raising her, right?
The copy we still read most nights at the request of my 4-year-old is the same battered copy I bought so many years ago. It’s a board book version and it bears tiny teeth marks in the corners and splatters of something and one of the last pages sticks, so when you pull it hard, it makes this terrifying sound.
Our family has grown, and Olivia has been with us the whole way, her antics and adventures resonating with all my children. They see themselves in the kids asking over and over when Santa will come, the ritual of Olivia carrying her cat from task to task in the morning, the way he illustrated the faces of Olivia’s brothers and parents when she’s being particularly Olivia in scenes.
In a 2012 interview with Publishers Weekly about his then-newly released Olivia and the Fairy Princesses book, Falconer shared just how important it was for him to get Olivia’s personality right in his stories — and how the marketing and merchandise behind his books inspired that. “Pink doesn’t make sense with Olivia because she is not that kind of creature anyway. In the first book she does a little ballet thing, but it’s not really her character. So the book emerged from my frustration with trying to get some good quality stories and dolls and outfits and things that reflected Olivia more than the standard tutu,” he said. It’s a running theme in the Olivia stories — to make her opinionated, strong, one-of-a-kind. But at the same time, she is completely relatable to all the other kids who want to build sand castles and have adventures and wear a tutu — without being branded as a “pink princess.”
Falconer’s stories have remained on bestseller lists because they are an ode to childhood. A reminder that all of us can be a little bit much at times, even if we don’t think we are, and that we can love each other not just in spite of domineering energy, but because of it, even if it really wears us out.