When my niece Molly had reached the age where she could start to read a little bit on her own, I bought her Olivia, a book about a very independent little piglet who loved to wear red and stripes and “was very good at wearing people out,” including herself.
The story was delightful, the art witty and energetic, and Olivia was a character with the strength of will of Peanuts’ Lucy Van Pelt and the imagination of Bill Watterson’s Calvin. But what really grabbed me about Olivia was a moment near the end in which she visits an art museum with her mother, and they enter a room in which hangs a Degas painting of ballerinas. Where most of the book is drawn very simply, with little detail, the painting appears to be a photograph of an actual Degas. It leaps off the page.
The narration tells us she looked at the Degas for a long time, and wonders what she could be thinking. Then, the page turn reveals a lushly-sculpted black-and-white pencil drawing of Olivia as a ballerina herself, wearing a tiara and bowing center stage.
In that one image there was so much of what I wanted for my niece in her life—the opportunity to be exposed to works of great beauty; the ability to engage with the world on her own terms; and above all, bold dreams.
Each year I bought Molly the next Olivia book—there are eight in total. And each of them had moments like this where what was already a hilarious, brilliantly scripted story would suddenly open up into a moment of the real world. In Olivia Saves the Circus, she relays how she went to the circus over the summer and took on all the jobs after the performers got sick. (“Was that true?” her teacher asks. “Pretty true,” she replies. “To the best of my recollection.”) But at the book’s beginning and end we see she has a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt hanging above her bed. Olivia and the Missing Toy starts with Olivia riding a camel; the world behind her is a photograph of the Sphinx and Pyramids. “One day Olivia was riding a camel in Egypt …,” the narration begins.
Time and again, what proves central to the books is Olivia’s imagination. And she is always dreaming of things for herself that show great faith and self-confidence. In Olivia Forms a Band she draws herself into a photo of the Supreme Court justices. (She is, of course, the Chief Justice.) In Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, Olivia now has hanging on her wall a photograph of the choreographer Martha Graham. The book also features an amazing two-page spread of Olivia doing one of Graham’s iconic dances.
Fairy Princesses is interesting, too, for its central problem. Olivia has just come from a birthday party, where she was horrified to discover that all of her classmates came dressed as fairy princesses, just as they had done for Halloween and their ballet class. To Olivia, it’s ridiculously unimaginative. Her dreams are never such nonsensical fantasies.
Critics had a tendency to view these real world flourishes as winks at the adults who were buying the books or reading them to their children. But for my own part I always saw them as primarily aimed at the young readers themselves. They were like a secret message from their creator Ian Falconer, telling them not to pay attention to adults who spoke of their desires with amusement or grating condescension. “You’re right,” Falconer whispered. “Modern dance is incredible. And you can do it.”
Falconer died in March of liver failure. He was only sixty-three. And honestly from photographs he looked an awful lot younger than that. While reading his obituaries, I was surprised to discover that we share the same birthday, just ten years apart, and also that he created Olivia for his own niece Olivia, who according to him at three could already “argue, stonewall, bulldoze or filibuster her way through any inconvenience to achieve her goal.”
I also learned that in 1996, just a few years before he began publishing the Olivia books, Falconer had been approached by the New Yorker’s art director Françoise Mouly to help her refresh the look of the magazine’s cover art. Falconer would go on to produce thirty covers, so many of which had such great insight into life in New York. There was the Halloween cover where we peer through an apartment peephole to find Death waiting outside. There were the tourists standing on a bridge in Central Park taking photos of a lily-covered lake, the man wearing a T-shirt saying “J’Heart Monet.” There were so many covers of a fashionable older woman, classic Upper East Side New York, looking on various things going on in the city with a humorous anxiety. Falconer took inspiration for her from his own grandmother.
Reading more about Falconer, I’ve come to realize that in a way the Olivia books are really a celebration of New York. It’s never made exactly clear where Olivia and her family live. Once or twice we get a shot of trees out a window or door, but in general the way that they live together has the feeling of an East Side Manhattan apartment, not a home in the suburbs. The places they go seem very clearly in and around the city, and the women that Olivia idolizes are iconic New Yorkers.
But more than that, Olivia’s attitude itself is so clearly that of a child who has lived in a place filled with culture. You can go to ballet classes anywhere in the world, but a seven-year-old who can do a Martha Graham routine or arrives at a princess birthday party dressed, as the New York Times described her, “as Anna Wintour yanked from a country weekend,” is a New Yorker. In a sense, she’s all of us who have ever come to New York. Living in New York exposes you to a world that is so much bigger and more interesting than almost any other. It’s a place that naturally inspires both a greater appreciation for life and big dreams. And it empowers you to believe you can achieve them, too.
Looking back, when I gave my niece that first Olivia book, I think what I was really saying was I hope you come to New York. Being here will change what you think is possible for your life (as it has mine). It will help you understand just how wonderful and spectacular you are.
In this season of commencement, I wish the same for our graduates. Dream bold, relish beauty. And make sure New York remains a part of your life.