November 2004

Gordon McAlpin

fiction

Olive, My Love by Vivian Walsh and J.otto Seibold

Vivian Walsh and J.otto Seibold's ninth picture book together, Olive, My Love, is a whimsical, heart-warming tale destined to be a cherished Valentine's Day present for young readers for years to come, even though the holiday isn't mentioned by name. It is also a cross-over of sorts, bringing together their two most popular creations, Olive from Olive, the Other Reindeer and Mr. Lunch from Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride, Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, and Free Lunch. As Olive's new book opens, she has been baking heart-shaped dog biscuits all afternoon and lies down for a nap, when she hears her friend Dexter the winged dog (played by Mr. Lunch) singing her a tune. Startled by a loud noise, she opens the door and finds a big surprise: Dexter has dropped an enormous heart on her doorstep! Thinking he's dropped it on accident, Olive sets out to return his heart to him, enlisting the help of Handler the squirrel, Weaver the spider and a silent, nameless flea. Of course, when she arrives as Dexter's house, she learns that the heart was intended as a gift for her and they all sit around eating Olive's biscuits.

Other than the change in holidays, though, Walsh doesn't take Olive into very much new territory. The highly linear story is prompted, as in Olive, the Other Reindeer, by Olive mistakenly hearing her own name instead of the words "all of," and so it comes off as a perhaps too literal sequel. Still, it is a sweetly amusing tale, and younger children will care less about the similarities. Fortunately for older fans, J.otto Seibold can do no wrong. Half the fun of Olive, My Love is in hunting for all the little details. The inside flap of the dust cover, for instance, has an arrow pointing to the list price ($15.00 US) along with a note saying, "Who says you can't buy love?" And a portrait in the background of Olive's house shows her with yet another familiar character, Chongo Chingi from Penguin Dreams, who also appears a few pages later, waving from a park bench.

Artistically, Seibold is one of the most overlooked and important children's book illustrators working today. Like all of Seibold's work, Olive, My Love is created entirely in Adobe Illustrator, yet his art manages to avoid the cold, mechanical quality of so much digital illustration, earning him a cult following among graphic designers and computer-savvy illustrators the world over. Glancing through his books in chronological sequence, you can observe a progression in Illustrator's capabilities as an artistic tool, from the rather limited (but no less charming) art of the early Mr. Lunch books to Seibold's last two books, 2002's Gluey, a Snail Tale, also with Vivian Walsh, and last year's freakishly beautiful Alice in (pop-up) Wonderland, which were considerably more detailed than his other books. In Gluey, the artist made more liberal use of Illustrator's blends, which he used only sparingly in the earlier books (perhaps because the features weren't as well-implemented as they have become in recent versions). The new book marks a return to the somewhat more spare approach of the first Olive book, which is appropriate enough, but traces of his and Illustrator's recent development are still evident in the blends and shading, which lend additional depth to his already distinctive work.

Those who don't understand the appeal of his style may call it "disconcerting" (Joy Fleishhacker, School Library Journal), but some of us -- children, artists and other overgrown children -- can see beneath their heavily stylized, two-dimensional surface to underlying drawings, even if those drawings never existed in the real world. The gesture of Olive's figure as she stands in her doorway looking at the enormous heart has more life in it than all the Tammie Lyons, Sheila McGraws, and Laura Cornells of the world combined.

Why on Earth do these books with their soulless, interchangeable artists sell so well? Because more often than not, adults are the ones who buy the books, not kids. And it's a shame, because I've never seen a child stare at art like that in wonder (or perhaps it was confusion), as I have with books by J.otto Seibold, Lane Smith and the other great children's book illustrators working today. But even as they might slip under the radar of the book-buying public of the world, eliciting contorted facial expressions from adults if they notice them at all, books like Olive, My Love tend to stand the test of time, earning new admirers and bringing about fond memories in old admirers while so many others go where they belong: to the landfill.

Olive, My Love by Vivian Walsh and J.otto Seibold
Harcourt Children's Books
ISBN 0152047204
40 pages