Olivia and the Missing Toy

By Gesse Stark-Smith

Recently I decided that my two favorite things are books and people. Then I realized that actually I just read books in order to get at people, which is to say that the main way I connect with works of fiction is through character. Obviously, other features of story-telling are important too, but if I’m not pulled in by a character I’ll probably stop reading and will never have the chance to notice the lyric descriptive passages or the ingenious plot devices.
I want to understand characters, to know who they are and what they’re about, to analyze why they do what they do. This process of investigation is analogous to my quest to understand the “real people” with whom I interact on a daily basis. When I read I am postulating theories of identity based on the hints which an individual’s actions provide. When I’m not reading I’m doing that too.

Creating a character that is compelling enough to provide fodder for such analysis is no easy feat. Illustrating a character’s beliefs and desires without gravely oversimplifying her personality is a delicate balancing act. I generally prefer fiction written in the first person because hearing events in a character’s voice offers me direct access to her mind. However, some authors are able to give us this same degree of access by showing us a character from a third person point of view.

One of the best examples that I’ve seen of this is found in “Olivia and the Missing Toy,” a book by Ian Falconer that I first encountered in a cereal box. You see, Cheerios has launched a “read to your kids” campaign (they seem to be calling this effort “Nurturing Circle”) and instead of putting happy meal style toys into their boxes they’re giving out books. I am, clearly, thrilled by this whole idea and most especially by the spot-on character development that is so delicately handled throughout “Olivia.”

Falconer gets to use pictures to illustrate his characters’ emotions and some people may call it unfair to compare this kind of “showing” with the kind so often urged on writers of adult fiction (you know, the kind without pictures). Whatever. Falconer does more with simple sentences than lots of writers can manage with clause after clause of big fancy words. Adding pictures is just a utilization of all of the available resources.

“Olivia” charts a day in the life of its young protagonist (and title character), who is an anthropomorphized pig with an unusually large head. The day starts off like any other. Olivia is awakened by her overly-cheerful-considering-it-is-the-morning mother and informed that she must get ready for soccer practice. Unfortunately, her uniform “comes in a really unattractive green.” She demands that her mother make her a red jersey and when her mom points out that she’ll look different from her team mates Olivia curtly replies, “That’s the point.”

From the description of these very first events we can understand a lot about Olivia’s character. For example, she is strongly opinionated individual who is aghast at the prospect of compromise. As her day continues, eventually reaching the climax of a lost toy, these characteristics are further explored through continued interaction with her family members. Each of these interactions between cartoon pigs feels more true to my life experience then most stories that I’ve recently read with human protagonists.

The book’s exploration of family dynamics rings particularly true. Golden moments include (but are not limited to): Olivia’s interrogation of her younger brothers (“WHAT DID YOU DO WITH MY TOY?”), the subtle tension between her parents over how to manage the situation of a lost toy and the pure happy ignorance of Perry the dog in the midst of his own crimes.

I could continue to discuss this book at great length (I’m pretty sure I’ve already surpassed its word count) but my love of literary theory aside, “Olivia and the Missing Toy” is, in a word, delightful. It is delightful because it is familiar. Falconer captures a piece of what it means to be human, what it means to be a person interacting with and trying to understand the world and he does it all with a rich simplicity that writers of “literary fiction” would be lucky to emulate.