They are the subject of many picture books. Some of these are entirely too cliché, but every now and then you run across a special one that really gets it.
Candlewick Press has released a new one, Oliver, from a debut author/illustrator originally from Iceland, Birgitta Sif. It’s about a misfit – but more. Sure, the protagonist is a fish out of water, but he’s also an introvert. And it’s remarkable to see a picture book handle this with such honesty and precision.
“Oliver felt a bit different,” the book opens. “But it didn’t matter. He lived in his own world, happily, with his friends.” Indeed, these friends, one notes from the illustrations, consist of toys, puppets, and books. Oliver lives solidly in the world of his imagination. If he’s not with these “friends,” he’s branching out in the world – but always on his own. In one spread, we see Oliver swimming laps by himself in a pool, while groups of children on the other side of the pool play in a group. In all public/group settings, you can bet Oliver is alone in the crowd.
Not to mention that sometimes, no matter where he may be, “he wanted to fly away.” Though he’s perfectly well-adjusted, the noise and bustle of the world, readers sense, is a bit much for him at times.
But look closely. On nearly every spread is a young girl, also without a companion or holding a toy or a book. She’s got her eye on Oliver. She is on to him.
And, yes, they become friends. They’re a bit like puzzle pieces that fit together, and one closes the book feeling relieved they found each other in life.
Notable here is how Sif doesn’t portray Oliver – or his new friend – as if they’re worthy of readers’ pity. (There are many picture books about overcoming shyness, which end in the protagonist exuberantly joining a group at book’s end. But shyness is different from introversion.) To be sure, in one spread Oliver is staring sadly out the window: “Oliver felt a bit different,” it reads. You see, in the previous spread, he’s playing the piano for his friends – those of the stuffed variety, that is – and “no one listened.” Even loners, after all, crave some companionship. Despite his rich, imaginative life and though he seems perfectly self-assured and self-possessed, he’d like at least one friend who will actually talk back.
And one gets the sense he’s choosy, so it’s even more gratifying when he finds such a kindred spirit in Olivia. Yes, Olivia. The nearly-matching names might seem a bit corny, but it really works – as do Sif’s digitally-colored pencil illustrations, all laid out on a muted palette with relaxed lines, many spreads with fun details for observant eyes.
I have a young daughter who is very much like Oliver, and it drew me to this story. I turned the last page, thinking Sif got it precisely right. I’ve stopped worrying that my eight-year-old typically reads on the playground, instead of playing with other children (something I’d not say in a public forum, if I were wise, given that it will likely solicit parental advice of all stripes), and I’ve stopped worrying that she’s, most of the time, a lone wolf and not exactly a joiner of groups.
Because, like all introverts, she lives a rich life of the inner mind. Many of us do, but for introverts, it not only drains their resources and energies to be in social groups too often, but it also crimps their need for introspection. Sif understands this and brings us a very real and likeable outsider who knows what makes him happy and feels comfortable in his own skin – even if what he wants isn’t the very thing most everyone else craves.
A thoughtful debut from a promising new artist. I look forward to what Sif brings readers next.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
OLIVER. Copyright © 2012 by Birgitta Sif. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.