Review of the Day: Oh, Olive! by Lian Cho
By Lian Cho
Katherine Tegan Books (an imprint of Harper Collins)
On shelves now
I like so many things about picture books that it would be hard to pin down what precisely I like about them the most. Of course, there is one aspect of children’s literature that I forget and rediscover on a regular basis, and that always makes me inordinately happy when that re-discovery takes place. The simple fact of the matter is that children’s books, like much of storytelling in this world, often rehashes old tropes. There’s the I-thought-you-guys-forgot-my-birthday-but-you-were-planning-a-surprise-party trope and the I’m-a-baby-animal-separated-from-my-parents-so-I’ll-ask-a-bunch-of-animals-if-they’re-related-to-me trope. What’s interesting about these repeated beats is that quality rarely has to do with a plot’s originality. A great children’s author can take the familiar and write it into something that feels completely new. Take Lian Cho, for example. She’s making her authorial debut with Oh, Olive and if I were to describe the plot to you, you’d say it had been done before. You’d be right, but you’d also be wrong. Sure, the story in this book is the artistic-kid’s-parents-bemoan-artistic-kid trope, but it’s HOW Cho puts all her elements together that makes this book feel more than original. It feels special. Probably because it is.
Olive’s parents despair. They are “serious artists”, you see. Her father specializes in painting squares and her mother rectangles. From day one they’ve attempted to teach their daughter shapes, but Olive’s art is very different from their own. While they find joy in the black and white purity of a single shape on a canvas, Olive delights in color concoctions. Her paintings look like what you’d get if Jackson Pollock occasionally fell onto this paintings and smeared the splatter. When she goes to school, her teacher tries to correct her and get her to do shapes too, but the other kids recognize Olive’s potential. And when they ask her to teach them, no one has any idea how far that teaching will go.
I started out by saying that one of my favorite types of picture books is the kind where the premise is familiar but the final product wholly new. Another type of picture book I like? Cheery agent of chaos books PARTICULARLY if the agent of chaos in question identifies as female. And just look at that grin on the cover. It just instantly makes you like Olive. Something about her little rectangular head and the degree to which that smile just FILLS her face right up. All throughout the book, she has a perpetual smile or grin sitting there. She’s unflappable, which is part of her charm, I think. Kids love a good unflappable protagonist. Someone who can just shrug off the well meant but utterly unhelpful advice of adults. This imperviousness to criticism could be called unrealistic, but I prefer to see it as aspirational. Haven’t we all wished, at some point in our lives, that we could just ignore the jabs and put downs of the people that don’t really “get” us? Looking at Olive, I kept trying to think of other perpetually upbeat chaotic characters. The Cat in the Hat gets a bit down in his first book, but stays pretty consistently high as a kite in his second. Olive also sort of reminded me of The Roadrunner in those old Looney Tunes cartoons, but she’s no trickster. She just has this self-confidence that radiates off of her, no matter the situation.
Now usually I’m not a fan of books where a kid is an instant prodigy and can’t learn anything from the adult world around them. It sort of goes against that age old advice to learn the rules so that you can break them. But in its way, I think that Oh, Olive actually adheres to that rule. The ending of this book (to spoil it for you) sticks the landing completely. Olive’s parents finally accept that while her style of art might not conform to their own, it’s still art. They present her with one of their paintings and ask her to do her magic on it. Of course what she does that shocks them (and you get this stellar image of their flabbergasted faces right before the reveal, which I appreciated) is create an absolutely perfect circle. In her own style, of course, but it’s still a shape. Up until that moment, they’ve assumed that their instructions went unheeded, but this is very much a children-will-listen moment. To be honest, I was rather touched by how these seemingly snooty parents spent a LOT of time introducing their toddler daughter to art. So while the book does seem to advise kids to ignore the teachings of their elders, the ending proves that Olive was learning all along. She just wanted to put her own spin on things. Which, when you think of it, is really the point of art itself, wouldn’t you say?
The part of this book that you could easily miss in the midst of all this fun storytelling is Olive’s art itself. I’m no art critic, but when I look at her creations, I’m struck by just how . . . well . . . inarguably GOOD they are. They literally make me happy when I see them. So, naturally, I turned to the publication page to figure out how they were done. There I found that Lian Cho used “sumi ink, graphite, gouache, acrylic, and colored pencils to create the illustrations for this book.” Not, to my surprise, Procreate or some other digital program. This was particularly astounding when I looked at the three-dimensional quality of Olive’s canvases. Lest you believe that my admiration for the book stops at the art its protagonist creates, there’s actually quite a lot that Lian Cho is doing here above and beyond the colors. Her black and white linework on the front endpapers and how she integrates shapes into the design is entrancing. The facial expressions (which I alluded to earlier) are sublime, most notably on our small heroine. It’s funny (any book where someone has to be told not to lick their own art is on the right track), and after several reads you begin to notice additional details. For example, when Olive and her classmates go into the community to paint everything, notice that together they make up a little running rainbow (albeit not in order). I just spent the better part of ten minutes just now flipping between the front and back endpapers so that I could see which characters are repeated. Also, keep an eye on the geese. They’re in there too and they have their own thing going on.
I dunno, man, this just sort of feels like what a new picture book for kids should be. Fun and funny, filled to the brim with beautiful art and with a bit of a message to boot. I was wishing for a moment there that there was more foreshadowing of Olive liking circles (a kind of rebellion against her parents in and of itself) but then I reread the book and found a moment when she’s secretly making one without her parents even noticing, early on. This is a difficult book to resist. It just overwhelms you with its good-natured love of the joy of artistic expression. From tip to toe it’s a book you want to read to a group of kids repeatedly, or just one kid in your lap whenever you get a chance. Amusing, sweet, and strange. A wondrous mix of the familiar with the utterly original.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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