oliver olson
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
How Oliver Olson Changed the World

written by Claudia Mills; illustrated by Heather Maione

Buried under a torrent of poignant, brilliant, and very YA materials, we sometimes wonder: won’t someone think of the middle-graders? Fortunately, Claudia Mills does, and with continued perception, humor, and sympathy, as evidenced by her stellar 7 x 9 = Trouble! (BCCB 4/02) and other titles. Now she’s returned with a tale of third-grader Oliver Olson, who’s struggling with various skyborne phenomena: the planet Pluto, and his helicopter parents.

Oliver’s a quiet and retiring little guy, not inclined to make waves, but when his class is assigned to build a diorama of the solar system, he gets sucked into the plans of exuberant classmate Crystal. She wants to build a model with a message: the recent exclusion of the former planet Pluto is unfair. Oliver knows that his overprotective parents will insist, as usual, on doing his schoolwork for him, but after scenes of diorama-building domestic strife and a bit of begging from Oliver, they miraculously allow him to handle his own project construction with Crystal as his partner. As Oliver finds that he actually enjoys breaking out of his shell and working with alarmingly effervescent yet genuinely thoughtful Crystal, he begins to hope that more parental leniency may be forthcoming; in particular,
he’s fervently desiring to attend the third-grade in-class space sleepover and look through a telescope at the planets he’s spent so much time depicting.

It may sound like a gimmick, but the tale of a kid who’s been stifled by his well-meaning parents meshes with surprising effectiveness with the tale of a planet that’s been decommissioned by well-meaning astronomers. The Pluto topic is treated with respect and the arguments on that controversial issue are fairly and accessibly aired, so kids with their own strong views will find both backup and food for thought. It also offers a chance for considerable humor as Oliver and Crystal construct “the first protest diorama in the history of the third grade,” and as a series of Pluto models turn out to be as ill-fated as their subject. Mills also mines considerable humor from Oliver’s eager parents, especially his worried mother: Oliver’s deadpan resignation in the face of his parents’ frustrated labors over a model of the solar system (“His parents probably could trust him to write his own name,” he thinks wearily) makes him almost a wry straight man to the flighty Gracie Allen absurdity of the adults in his life, a situation with which many kids will identify.  Yet the book creates sympathy for Oliver’s anxious mother as well as for Oliver, and his concern that he avoid hurting her feelings rings absolutely true. Though there’s tension in Oliver’s negotiations with Crystal, she’s no villain either, proving to be good, if pushy, fun, and an excellent example of the kind of kid who has so much she wants to share with the world that she just can’t manage to wait for the world to ask. Kids will instantly recognize these people and dynamics, and they will be heartened to see Oliver making it to the class sleepover and thus achieving the successful inclusion that Pluto has had to forego. Maione’s monochromatic line-and-watercolor illustrations strike a similarly accessible note; they’re personable and friendly, with touches of rueful humor and glimpses of an impressive yet believable take on Oliver and Crystal’s masterwork.

Beyond that everyday and concrete reality, however, the book offers a quiet championing of freedom of thought and the sometimes messy process of brainwork.  Oliver’s unexpected triumph is the reading aloud of his Magna Carta equivalent, a statement about the importance of kids doing their own homework, to an assembly hall audience that includes his parents, but that’s a point that’s been made throughout the book: these students learn considerably more from hashing out the Pluto issues themselves than simply being told the ex-planet’s status as a fait accompli.  “One person with a big idea can change the world,” says Oliver’s teacher; that’s an important message, but also important is the point that kids need practice to work out their thinking on their own, to construct their own mental dioramas, to learn from their own individual strengths and mistakes, and to create a thought bubble that doesn’t risk getting sliced up by the blades of parental helicopters if they’re ever going to reach those big ideas.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

oliver olson

Cover image by Heather Maione from How Oliver Olson Changed the World ©2009. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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This page was last updated on April 1, 2009.