In Memory: Ian Falconer

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Path to publication stories always intrigue me, especially those that feel very serendipitous. Take, for instance, Ian Falconer‘s Olivia (Atheneum, 2000), a story he originally wrote for his three-year-old niece (also named Olivia) as a Christmas gift in 1996.

“I thought I’d do a little book for her, a little story, and it just got better and better. I just did drawings first–I drew a whole story–and then I wrote it afterwards,” Falconer told Publishers Weekly‘s Jennifer Brown in 2000.

Falconer also started illustrating New Yorker covers in July 1996, and a friend suggested he show the Olivia story to a literary agent. The agent’s response is the singular predictable element in this story: the agent loved the illustration, but wanted a published author to write the text.

“I’d made this character and this story, and I really didn’t want it to be ‘illustrated by Ian Falconer,'” Publishers Weekly reported in Fall 2000 Flying Starts: Ian Falconer.

He put the story away and continued designing sets for stage productions including Stravinsky’s “Scènes de Ballet” at the New York City Ballet, according to the Washington Post. Falconer had studied art history at New York University and painting at the Parsons School of Design, before moving to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. There he worked with noted artist and stage designer David Hockney on many high-profile collaborations, according to the New York Times.

Falconer also continued drawing New Yorker covers, which attracted the attention of editor Anne Schwartz, who in 1998, contacted him to illustrate another author’s book. He turned down the commission, but showed her the 100-page draft of Olivia.

“You could tell immediately that this was something really, really special. I thought to myself, this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ve just really gotten lucky here,” Schwartz recently told Chloe Veltman of NPR’s All Things Considered.

Falconer’s book was fresh in multiple ways. “One thing that was very special about it is the whole book was in red and black and picture books at that time were full color. To see something so stark and graphically striking was unusual. There was also this amazing character of Olivia that just really jumped off the pages. In every single picture, I knew that kids would be able to connect with her,” Schwartz told NPR.

Olivia won a Caldecott Honor in 2001 and became the first in a series of eight bestselling books. Nickelodeon created an animated Olivia series in 2009.

In a 2012 New York Times interview, Falconer talked about what makes a good children’s book. “If I had to say one thing, it would be to not underestimate your audience. Children will figure things out; it’s what they do best — sorting out the world.”

On second thought, rather than serendipity, given Ian Falconer’s experience in creating scenes and his respect for young readers, children’s literature success feels more like Aristotle’s quote about endings: “surprising, yet inevitable.”

From the Publishers Weekly obituary, Ian Falconer “died of natural causes on March 7 in Rowayton, Conn., with his family at his side. He was 63.”

Cynsational Notes

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. Now she focuses her energy on inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.