Ian Falconer’s headstrong Olivia may be a piglet, but she is decidedly not pink. Falconer’s new picture book, Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, reveals Olivia’s girlhood bête noire (or bête rose, as the case may be). Readers of Olivia Saves the Circus and Olivia and the Missing Toy, and admirers of Falconer’s satiric images for the New Yorker and other publications, will detect the sharp wit underlying Olivia’s fairy princess troubles.
Why did you choose to take on the pink princess crowd in this new picture book?
I live in the Village in New York City, and it has become radically gentrified in the last 15 years. All of these little girls walk around with their wands and their tutus. There are squads of them roving the streets. And Olivia would want none of that.
The story came out of working with my sister, who is also my assistant, and doing the marketing. We oversee as best we can the kind of toys they produce. We kept running into this problem – they all wanted to do pink, pink, pink. I had to say, “No, no, everybody’s doing pink! How many pink tutus can you sell?” Marketing people just want to stick to something safe, I guess.
On the book’s pale-rose-and-aqua-green cover, you picture Olivia wearing that very tutu, holding a wand, and grimacing at herself in a hand mirror. On the reverse, she casts them aside. How does this image clash with our expectations of Olivia, who usually wears a daring red?
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.
Are you at all nervous about how pink devotees will respond to Olivia’s rejection of such accoutrements?
I started the book about a year ago, and I had some doubts. But then I saw a viral video of a little girl filmed by her father in a store, in the pink aisle with all the girl stuff. She goes on a rant and says, “Why do boys get all these different things? We all have to get pink!” That made me feel very happy. I thought it was pretty spontaneous, or at least articulate enough to be nonscripted.
As you wrote this manuscript, did you run into any controversy with editors around Olivia identifying “some of the boys” as wanting to be princesses as well, not unlike the child in My Princess Boy?
No, no one said a word about that. Either they didn’t dare or it’s simply a non-issue now. The line just sort of came out (no pun intended) and I thought it was funny.
Olivia wears basic black, models non-Western princess garb, and stands apart from the throng. Does her confidence represent your wish that children resist conformism?
I don’t mean to offend anybody, but it’s a way of asserting Olivia’s independence. There are no mean girls in this book. There’s no rival here. It’s just Olivia’s observation. There are alternatives.
Plus, a lot of things that happen to Olivia are largely in her mind, so I’d take it with a grain of salt. The Halloween scene [where Olivia dresses as a warthog and terrifies party-going princesses] probably would never happen that way in real life. They wouldn’t be running away in fear. But in her mind, she thinks so.
Have you read this book to child audiences yet, or thought about how it might be performed?
No, I’ve just had the book a couple weeks, and I am terrible at readings and speaking in public. Children are a devastatingly critical audience. That said, this book particularly would be a good play.
If Olivia shuns fairy princesses, how do you account for the fact that she loves accessorizing and putting on lipstick, as she famously does in Olivia Forms a Band?
My editors just hated that – they thought that it was grotesque and none of the kids would like it. So my sister took it to school where my nephews went, and read the story to them, and they just thought it was the funniest thing in the world. I never underestimate children: they’re built to sort things out, figure things out, make sense of things.
Rather than fantasize about fairy magic, Olivia finds a heroine in Martha Graham. Your book dedication is a tongue-in-cheek apology to Ms. Graham, and you picture Olivia in a series of dramatic modern-dance poses. What gave you the idea for this comparison?
At first as I was drawing for the book, I had her in a black leotard doing angular dancing. And I thought, oh, that would be funny. But nobody will care, nobody will get the Martha Graham reference, and certainly no kid will. But it’s so funny, the two pages devoted to her dancing like Graham, that I had to do it.
Do you write and draw in the expectation that an adult will tell a child about Martha Graham or define the multisyllabic words – like the moment where Olivia considers a career in journalism to “expose corporate malfeasance”?
That’s what I count on a lot, that children read with a parent who will explain what “corporate malfeasance” means. In my experience as a kid, we all loved big words. There’s a point in every kid’s life where they learn the word “immature” and start using it – “Oh, she’s so immature!” – without really understanding what it means. They like the sound of big words.
How does your creative work for young audiences overlap with the kind of satirical and edgy illustration you do for periodicals like the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker?
Well, apart from the similarity of drawing techniques, I put myself in the mindset for the task at hand. I try to think with the fairly direct logic of a child for Olivia, and then with the topsy-turvy logic of, say, a New Yorker cover. It’s a bit like doing crossword puzzles—you get out of practice if you don't do them, but if you do them regularly, you begin to think that way.
Might you someday create a picture book that does not feature Olivia, or do you find most of your picture book inspiration in her?
Olivia is based on my niece, and my other sister has twin boys, so she’s always been jealous that Olivia got all this attention. So I thought, I’ll write an adventure story. I’m actually working on another book right now about two dachshunds, two boys.
Your niece Olivia famously has signed books and enjoyed being the model for your character. How does the “real” Olivia feel about pink these days?
I asked Olivia (who is a sophomore in college now, by the way), and she said, “Well, it depends on the occasion!”
Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer. S&S/Atheneum, $17.99 Aug. 28 ISBN 978-1-4424-5027-1