I’ve a little early chapter book radar in my left frontal lobe. Every time I’m handed a pile of books that little radar beeps out a series of signals in a desperate attempt to find that rarest of rare children’s titles: the early chapter book that’s actually really good. It’s a tough game to play. Nine times out of ten an early chapter book for kids wavers between easy readers and Harry Potter-sized tomes that are benevolent at best, dull and preachy at worst. But if you scout about and read enough of them, once in a while you’ll strike a small vein of gold. How Oliver Olson Changed the World by Claudia Mills is better than gold. Better than diamonds and jewels. It’s an early chapter book that’s thoughtful, original, funny, and wry. And if you ever wanted to teach an eight-year-old about metaphors, that’s also worked into the mix, just for kicks.
What Oliver Olson has, kids worldwide would kill for. His parents do his homework for him. You wanna know something though? Come in close here. The fact of the matter? Oliver hates it. He really does. Ever since he was a sickly baby his mom and dad have been Mr. and Mrs. Overprotective. He can’t tell them about his planetary diorama without them wanting to make it for him (while refusing to let him leave while they do it). He can’t have sleepovers, and when he goes biking it can only be around their little cul-de-sac. So when the chance comes to make a diorama with Crystal from school, his hopes are not high that his parents will let him do it. Nor does he think he has any chance of being allowed to attend his class’s sleepover. Fortunately, Crystal is just the kid to get Oliver to stand up for himself and to try new things. And in the end, maybe he hasn’t changed THE world, but he’s certainly changed his own.
Claudia Mills is no fresh-faced newbie without a title to her name. The woman’s been around the block a couple times. She knows her children’s books. You know that cute easy reader series about Gus and Grandpa? Yeah. That’s her. But somehow (and in the vast a field of children’s literature this isn’t that surprising) I’ve never read a Claudia Mills penned title before. Now I have, and I like what I see. Mills has an easygoing style and an engaging series of characters. She’s very good at paring down people and situations to their most essential elements. That means that her stories stay interesting, but also manage to convey a large swath of concepts, ideas, people, and plot elements. Writing a good, a really good, early chapter book is very hard to do. Much harder than writing a wordy novel, so credit to Ms. Mills where credit is due.
There’s a lot of subtle humor going on with this book too. Stuff that kids will find funny and adults will find funny. Kids will probably find the continual destruction of Oliver’s model of Pluto amusing. Adults will enjoy watching Oliver’s parents become baffled by the fact that if this model was to scale (as the school instructions insist) it would have to be absolutely gigantic. Actually, kids will probably find that pretty amusing too. And I love that Oliver’s dad is completely dedicated to doing his son’s diorama, even though he hates doing it. It doesn’t even occur to him to make Oliver do it himself, either. The payoff to this comes later when Oliver asks if he can do the diorama with his friend Crystal and his dad’s diorama-based disgust allows his son to do something that would normally be verboten.
Speaking of humor, Oliver reminded me a lot of the character of Donuthead from Sue Stauffacher’s book of the same name. But while Donuthead’s germ and danger phobia is self-induced, Oliver’s has been inflicted upon him by his well-meaning if dim parents. Also, Donuthead was primarily about a kid learning to trust the world. Oliver Olson in contrast is about a kid learning where he fits in.
There’s a lot of depth to this slim 104-page book. With all the kids protesting the fact that Pluto has been kicked out of the planet club (so to speak) the last thing you’d expect would be Pluto’s strongest defender to see the other side and reconsider the position. How many books for kids can you think of where a child character takes a bold stand on a potentially heroic issue, then changes their mind afterwards to consider the counter-arguments? That kind of mature attitude is missing from some teen novels, let alone little books intended for the under-twelve crowd.
Librarians periodically like to do “booktalks” for older kids. They hold up a chapter book and essentially sell it to the kids with a catchy description. How Oliver Olson Changed the World sells itself, though, if you merely walk in front of kids and say, “What would it be like if your parents did all your homework. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Oliver Olson’s parents do that. And you know what? It’s torture!” You’ll have ‘em eating out of your hand and clamoring for this book before you’ve finished giving your spiel. Oliver Olson is rare fruit. A smart, succinct little creation with a great premise and good writing. I am a fan. Kids will be too. Pluck it.
Note on the Publication Page: I always find it funny when you look at the publication page of an early chapter book and you see the Library of Congress subject heading is something like, “self-realization – Fiction”.
Other Online Reviews:
- Read some of the book here for a lark.
- Also check out this small interview with Ms. Mills about its creation.