Olivia Kidney, written by Ellen Potter and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, is about a twelve-year-old girl who moves, with her inept building superintendent father, to a new apartment building. She starts out with a negative attitude about the place, but soon finds that her neighbors are much more than they seem. She visits an apartment made of glass (including a glass floor, perfect for spying on the apartment below), another that looks like a rain forest, and a third that resembles a farm. She encounters pirates, lizards, and seances, and possibly even ghosts.
To tell you the truth, I didn't quite know what to make of this book. It's well-written, with surprises around every corner. However, I couldn't get a good fix on the genre. The book is about a girl living with her father, dealing with problems in school, missing her absent older brother, and not feeling particularly happy. These are standard realistic fiction sorts of issues. Olivia Kidney quickly becomes surreal, however, when Olivia enters the room with the glass floor, and becomes ever more fantastic through the rest of the book. And yet, it doesn't feel like fantasy. It's not even completely clear if the unusual things are really happening, or if Olivia is hallucinating or imagining in some way (there are references to her being on medication and seeing a counselor). I found this disconcerting, though kids will probably take it in stride.
The other thing I had trouble getting a fix on was the target age range for the book. There's a cute pink cover (paperback edition) and occasional full-page illustrations. It's not all that long at 155 pages. Based on the outward appearance, I thought that Olivia Kidney was going to be a book for seven and eight-year-olds. But as I got further into the story I encountered brutal murders (recounted in a story within the story), and even an attempted murder of Olivia. There also some seriously creepy dolls. The bad things that happen are somewhat cartoonish, as violence goes, but I still think that they move the book up more to the nine to twelve year old range. If you can get the older kids to read this book, despite the pink cover and full page illustrations, at least.
Still, there's a lot to like about the Olivia Kidney. The various threads that Olivia experiences end up connecting in satisfying ways. Olivia's slightly pessimistic personality is appealing, and she's quite brave. There's a twist near the end that will delight readers who see it coming. Reynolds' illustrations add depth and humor.
Ellen Potter's writing is kid-friendly with just the right level of descriptive detail. For example:
"It was twenty-two stories high, and it contained some of the most awful people you'd ever want to meet. They crabbed up the elevators with their cold, unfriendly faces." (Page 1)
Don't you love that? "Crabbed up the elevators". How's that for an active, perfectly chosen verb? Or how about this:
"Olivia got out on the twelfth floor. It smelled of cooked onions. Over the years, Olivia had noticed that every floor in an apartment building had its own unique odor. In the last building she'd lived in, her floor smelled of old man's feet. Another floor she had lived on smelled like the juniors' department in Macy's." (Page 11)
How wonderful, the way she uses smell to add depth to Olivia's life in apartment buildings. Potter also includes dry humor, such as:
"Batty old thing, Olivia thought. She looked away and tried her best to ignore the woman. This became difficult as the batty old thing began to walk directly up to her. The woman's legs were bird-skinny. Her panty hose were sagging at her kneecaps and all around her ankles. Then Olivia saw that she wasn't wearing panty hose." (Page 15)
What kid won't snort with laughter over "she wasn't wearing panty hose"?
Olivia Kidney is much more than a fanciful tale of unusual people adventuring in an apartment building. It's also a keen character drama about a girl dealing with loss, and her relationship with her father. The book shines a light on friendship and self-discovery. And in parts, it's laugh-out-loud funny. I find it a bit tricky to know how to classify this book, in terms of both genre and age range. But I consider it worthwhile for people to figure that out, because this book has a lot of offer. There are several sequels, too, which I look forward to checking out.
Publisher: Penguin (Philomel/Puffin)
Publication Date: May 2003
Source of Book: Bought it
Other Blog Reviews: Bookshelves of Doom (where it was an Under the Radar recommendation. Leila's recommendation inspired me to read this book)
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.