The Dark Side of Olivia
Thursday, March 5th, 2009
My book, The Perfect Baby Handbook, is a satire of what’s often called the “super-parenting” movement, the stressful idea that we must offer our children every opportunity so that they can become almost supernaturally impressive and compete in an increasingly competitive world. People often ask me “Whence cometh this super-parenting movement?” Except they don’t use pretentious Middle-English phrases.
I waffle on. I mention the anxiety that’s arisen as the gap between America’s rich and poor widens, the spiraling cost of college, the pernicious effects of the now-debunked Mozart Effect and the consequences of the Clinton Administration’s increased focus on early-education and the “0-3 brain.” I implicate the Disney Princesses and the tiara-ization of our little girls, the “anyone can be famous, therefore everyone is special” ethos of reality television, of YouTube, of blogs like this.
But, until today, I never connected children’s book author/illustrator Ian Falconer’s Olivia, first published in 2000, to this bigger idea of obligatory over-achievement. And yet, paging through the book, it’s so obvious. Almost everything that Olivia, a charmingly willful pig, does is excessive and/or exemplary. The book introduces this Renaissance piglet by announcing: “She is good at many things.” At the beach, Olivia casually builds a mammoth sandcastle that perfectly replicates the Empire State Building. She tosses off a Jackson Pollack painting, functions as her own relentless Rachel-Zoe-like stylist. And when it’s time for bed, she announces, “Only five books tonight, Mommy” because, you see, she’s just a glutton for mental stimulation Even after her mother limits her to one book, the subject—Maria Callas—is conspicuously refined.
The Olivia series has, according to the Los Angeles Times, sold over six million copies around the world. It’s also spawned an category of merchandising. USA Today put Olivia in the pantheon of children’s literature pigs: “Think of the noble Wilbur in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Or the naive Piglet in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.”
And then think of Olivia who, for all her charm, is not at all humble. Not at all naive. Outrageously gifted and well-aware of it, naturally sophisticated, she’s emblematic of the sort of mythological child that drives the super-parenting mania. And a pretty intimidating role model, if you think about it, for kids who are often just plain old pigs