Books

Ian Falconer, creator of Olivia, the energetic piglet, dies at 63

“If I had to say one thing, it would be to not underestimate your audience,” Falconer said in 2012. “Children will figure things out; it’s what they do best — sorting out the world.”

In an undated image provided by Lindsay Thomas, Ian Falconer, right, and Erik Andor with the head for a costume Falconer designed for a Pacific Northwest Ballet production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” in 2017. Lindsay Thomas via The New York Times


Book Club

Ian Falconer, who had built a successful career designing opera sets with David Hockney and drawing covers for The New Yorker when he turned a character he had originally created as a Christmas gift for a niece into “Olivia,” a children’s book about a rambunctious piglet that became a publishing sensation, died on Tuesday in Norwalk, Connecticut. He was 63.

His lawyer and agent, Conrad Rippy, said the cause was kidney failure.

Falconer hit the children’s book jackpot in 2000 with “Olivia,” which was named a Caldecott Honor Book and remained on the children’s picture book bestseller list of The New York Times for 107 weeks.

Advertisement:

He introduced his young heroine with understated drawings in gray, black and red.

“This is Olivia,” the first page read, under a drawing of the piglet singing from a book titled “40 Very Loud Songs.” “She is good at lots of things.”

By the time Olivia falls into bed at the end of the book, she has played dress-up — all the garments and accessories she tries out are red — built a spectacular sand castle, admired artworks at a museum and earned a time out for attempting a Jackson Pollock imitation on a wall of her house.

Atheneum Books for Young Reader/Simon & Schuster
“Olivia” by Ian Falconer. – Atheneum Books for Young Reader/Simon & Schuster

The book had some sly touches for the adults who would be reading it to their children, including reproductions of an actual Pollock and a detail from an Edgar Degas painting. Such grown-up flourishes would become a signature of the series — a photographic portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt in “Olivia Saves the Circus” (2001), a portrait of the real-life Supreme Court justices (with Olivia superimposed) in “Olivia Forms a Band” (2006), photographs of Martha Graham in “Olivia and the Fairy Princess” (2012). The most recent book, “Olivia the Spy,” appeared in 2017.

“You knew ‘Olivia’ was going to be a big deal,” Dwight Garner of the Times wrote when the third book in the series, “Olivia … and the Missing Toy,” appeared in 2003, “because, at birthday parties and on Christmas morning, people kept giving your children copies of it. Or rather, people kept giving you copies of it, because ‘Olivia’ is one of those kids’ books, filled as it is with references to Callas and Jackson Pollock and the ballet, that hip mommies and daddies like to give to the children of other hip mommies and daddies.”

Advertisement:

For his latest children’s book, published last year, Falconer changed species. It was called “Two Dogs,” and it told the story of Augie and Perry, twin dachshunds who escape from their house one day while their human owners are at work and wreak havoc outside, but manage to escape blame. Jennifer Krauss, writing in the Times, called it a “delightful tour de force” and named it one of the best children’s picture books of 2022.

In a 2012 interview with the Times, Falconer was asked what makes a good children’s book.

“If I had to say one thing, it would be to not underestimate your audience,” he said. “Children will figure things out; it’s what they do best — sorting out the world.”

Ian Woodward Falconer was born on Aug. 25, 1959, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, to Alexandra and Bruce Falconer. His father was an architect, and his mother co-owned a gourmet food store, taught art and ran a sailing school.

He grew up in Connecticut and went to high school at the Cambridge School of Weston in Massachusetts. He studied art history at New York University for two years, then studied painting at the Parsons School of Design in New York before switching to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.

Advertisement:

On the West Coast he started working with Hockney, the noted artist and stage designer, and was his romantic partner for a time. (Christopher Simon Sykes, in the second volume of his Hockney biography, quotes Falconer as saying that he would often be awakened in the night by Hockney, and “then you’d probably hear his Picasso lecture for the 85th time.”) Among their high-profile collaborations was a 1992 staging of Puccini’s “Turandot” for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera.

“The new ‘Turandot’ that concludes Lyric Opera’s 1991-92 season is a show from which you emerge literally humming the scenery,” John von Rhein wrote in his review in the Chicago Tribune.

For that and other productions, Falconer also designed costumes.

“It was here,” he once wrote, “that I learned the ancient and delicate art of transforming a large, difficult, aggressive, middle-aged dramatic soprano into an 18-year-old virgin princess.”

Hockney provided a tongue-in-cheek back-cover blurb for the original “Olivia” book. “Olivia’s grasp of abstract composition is extraordinary for a 6-year-old,” he wrote.

By the mid-1990s Falconer was back on the East Coast, living in New York and still doing stage work, but also getting work as an illustrator. His first of 30 covers for The New Yorker appeared in July 1996. A favorite, he told the Times, appeared in 2000 and showed beauty pageant contestants, “a row of all-American, blond, cookie-cutter beauties showing off their perfect pearlies, and a snarling, raven-haired Miss New York in the middle, like a bad tooth.”

Advertisement:

For Christmas 1996, he made his 3-year-old niece, Olivia, a book with the piglet character that was, for all practical purposes, an energetic, imaginative human child.

“Even at 3,” he told USA Today in 2003, “the real Olivia could argue, stonewall, bulldoze or filibuster her way through any inconvenience to achieve her goal. And always in the nicest way.”

Why a piglet?

“Piglets seem the appropriate shape for little kids because their heads are too big for their bodies,” he told Newsday in 2003. “Everything’s oversized.”

In 1998, Anne Schwartz of Simon & Schuster was looking for an illustrator for a book and approached Falconer, having noticed his New Yorker covers. He wasn’t interested in the assignment, but he showed her the book he had made for his niece.

“I looked to the heavens,” Schwartz told USA Today. “I knew my ship had come in.”

Falconer’s father died when he was 25. He is survived by his mother, Alexandra Austin, and two sisters, Tonia Falconer Barringer and Tory Falconer Crane. He lived in the Rowayton section of Norwalk.

Nickelodeon made an animated television series out of the Olivia character in 2009. Back in 2001, Falconer had admitted being somewhat taken aback by the success of his creation.

“It’s a little embarrassing,” he told Newsday that year. “All these years, I’ve been working so hard to paint and draw, and I’m going to be remembered for this pig.”

Still, he added, “there are worse things that can happen to one.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Advertisement:

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com