While visiting our daughter in St. Paul, Minnesota, my husband and I made a visit to one of our favorite children’s bookstores, the Red Balloon Bookshop. We drove along historic Grand Avenue looking for the familiar landmark: a family of bears carved from wood – welcoming visitors to the bookstore.
This independent, woman-owned children’s bookstore has been serving the community for more than 35 years, offering an eclectic assortment of books, toys, and gifts for all ages, from infants to adults.
The name of the bookstore was inspired by the short film titled “The Red Balloon” produced by the French filmmaker, Albert Lamorisse. This fantasy/comedy film was made into a book which has become a favorite of many children as well as the young at heart.
While approaching the door, we noticed some interesting chalk drawings; perhaps they were created as part of a recent bookshop event.
Once inside the store, we wandered among the bookshelves looking for our favorite authors and illustrators, then I asked the clerk at the counter what her favorite picture book published in 2023 was. Without hesitation, she flew to the picture book section and pulled “Oh, Olive!” from the shelf and handed it to me.
I sat down in a nearby comfortable chair and began perusing. While the woman did not know me nor did she know that I am an artist, this was just the right book for me.
My attention was immediately drawn to the endpaper at the front of the book. Here the author/illustrator Lian Cho had visually described the monotoned neighborhood where the main character, Olive Chen, lives, lined with homes, stores, the park, and Olive’s parents’ art museum.
As soon as I turned to the title page, my artist’s eyes perked up: there was Olive, wearing a bright red hat, a blue blouse, and a yellow dress, the three primary colors used by artists to create other colors.
Flipping through the pages, I found Olive surrounded by more vibrant color. Colors that Olive had energetically painted on everything: on her easel, the floor, her canvas, and even on herself. Wearing a big, big, smile, she knew she must be “the most magnificent artist in the whole wide world.”
Her parents are also artists. Dressed in black and white clothes, they are serious artists who paint “prim, proper, and perfect” black and white shapes on canvas. They expect Olive to follow in their footsteps; however, Olive likes to “smear, splatter, splash and swirl” in wonderfully bright and breezy color concoctions everywhere.
When Olive goes to school, she is the only bright spot in the room. While the other students are praised for painting their black and white shapes, the teacher says, “Nice try Olive. Maybe try a shape next time!”
By the end of the year, her classmates recognize that Olive has a lot of confidence and potential and ask her to show them how to use colors, too. She invites them to “grab some paint and a paintbrush or two” and then joyfully leads them on a playful painting spree through the neighborhood, at their school, the park, the library, the pet store, and finally at the art museum where her parents yell “Oh, Olive!”
The readers cautiously hold their breath waiting to see what her parents will say and do next.
Will her parents be angry and disapproving? Will they accept that their daughter “can’t paint a shape,” and although her style might be different than theirs, it’s still art? Will they agree that the neighborhood is a cheerier place because these budding artists have creatively colorized it? Will Olive have a special surprise for her parents?
Of course, when my husband and I left the Red Balloon bookshop, “Oh, Olive!” was in my bag of new books.
“Oh, Olive!” was written by Lian Cho who grew up in both Taiwan and New Zealand where she says she “painted everything around her.” This is her first book in which she is both the author and the illustrator. The materials that Cho used to create this delightful book are sumi ink, graphite, gouache, acrylic, and colored pencils. She also likes to draw funny comics for her newsletters. You can learn more about her and her works, including her other illustrations, at liancho.com.
Although the book was written for children, ages 4 to 8, I invite people of all ages to enjoy this colorful reader that celebrates creativity over conformity and demonstrates how colors can bring forth joy.
Be sure to compare the endpapers at the beginning and the end of the book to see if you can find the small stories hidden within.