Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How Oliver Olson Changed the World by Claudia Mills, illustrated by Heather Malone

Okay, I cannot put this off any longer. I am really torn on this book. You see, I want to like it. I really do. I should like it. It's all about being independent, about parents letting their kids try new things without hovering, something I am majorly in favor of. It takes a strong whack at parents who do their kids' homework, something else that drives me nuts (you've seen them, o long-suffering librarians, dragging a bored child through the library "we need such and such a book and it has to have this and this because it's worth so many points"). I am no more in favor of smother mothers or helicopter parents than any other intelligent person. Everybody else likes it. Fuse #8 likes it.

But I am all about teh honesty here, and it just didn't work for me. So, first things first; the plot. Oliver has majorly over-protective parents. They never let him do anything even remotely dangerous -- or independent and even do his homework for him, right down to the last detail. Oliver hates it. He wants to be like all the other kids in his class, he wants to do his solar system diorama on his own, he doesn't want to use his mom's idea for a change-the-world suggestion for the upcoming contest, and he really, really wants to go to the school sleepover. It takes some help from an unexpected friend and some tough love for Oliver to start breaking free and growing up.

So, why didn't I like this? It just doesn't feel realistic to me. Oliver's parents' overprotectiveness is explained because "he had been sickly as a little boy". That just felt...cliched. The ending felt too pat - Oliver's friend sending in his neglected suggestion and his unexpected victory just didn't feel real to me. And I can't decide if Oliver's mother is an overly exaggerated irritating twit, or she's so well-written that she's supposed to be an irritating twit, especially in the part at the end where's she's fussing over Oliver and finally agrees to let him go. Finally, I'd really like to think kids like Oliver whose parents do every little thing for them really do want to be responsible; but I've just seen too many of them perfectly content to let their parents do all the talking, research, homework, and thinking for every moment of their lives. Or maybe they've just given up.

I'm not sure how I feel about the cover and interior illustrations. On the one hand, they really seem to fit the book. On the other hand, they just don't grab the casual browser and the cover feels a little...childish? I don't know. The boy on the cover doesn't look 9 to me, but I'm awful at judging ages.

Why should I like this, asides from the aforementioned reasons at the beginning? The characters are well-drawn and I especially enjoyed the spunky, independent Crystal. There's plenty of nonfiction nuggets woven into the story, and Oliver is a good picture of the kid who doesn't think there's anything special about him but wishes there was.

Verdict: What I'm really unsure about, and what I'd really like to test, is will kids like this book? Will the cover attract them or turn them off? Will they sympathize with the character and maybe think about doing more things on their own? I'd love to hear from anyone who's managed to kid-test this - did they love it? Hate it? No strong feelings either way?

ISBN: 978-0374334871; Published March 2009 by Farrar Straus and Giroux; Borrowed from the library


ReadingTub said...

Well, I admit I am one of the people who love Oliver. Oliver and Crystal's relationship reminded me of Andy Shane stories. Like you, I saw the parents as a little "over the top," but since it was Oliver's story, I accepted it as his perception. Where I am torn about it is the audience. When I think easy readers/short chapter, I think of kids Kindergarten to about half-way through third grade. This "reads" a little older for me. Not just because of the kids age, but some of the vocabulary, school experiences, and incredibly few illustrations.

Jennifer said...

Hmm, I need to read Any Shane. Yeah, maybe that's why I'm having problems with it. I wonder if the author was able to test-run it on any kids? I'm still building a book club, so I don't have anyone the right age to hand it to. Even with my reservations, there's so much that's good about this book it deserves an audience somewhere!