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'Olivia' creator and stage designer Ian Falconer dies at 63

Ian Falconer was the children's book author and illustrator behind the beloved Olivia. The books about the spunky pig have been translated into many languages, and were also made into an animated TV series.
Tracy van Straaten
Ian Falconer was the children's book author and illustrator behind the beloved Olivia. The books about the spunky pig have been translated into many languages, and were also made into an animated TV series.

Ian Falconer, best known as the illustrator and author of the beloved Olivia children's book series about a spry and smart young pig, died on Tuesday in Rowayton, Conn. The author, illustrator, theatrical set and costume designer was 63 years old.

Initially created as a Christmas gift in 1996 for Falconer's then 3-year-old niece Olivia, the first Olivia book was published in 2000.

Olivia by Ian Falconer
/ Simon & Schuster
/
Simon & Schuster

The author went on to illustrate and write seven sequels, culminating with Olivia the Spy in 2017. The series has sold more than 10 million copies, stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for over a year, and won numerous awards.

In 1996, Falconer started illustrating covers for The New Yorker. He produced 30 magazine covers over his career. It was this work that first caught the eye of Anne Schwartz, then a children's book publisher at Simon & Schuster. In an interview with NPR, Schwartz said she planned to commission Falconer to illustrate another author's book project, but he was more interested in showing her what was then the 100-page draft of Olivia.

"You could tell immediately that this was something really, really special," said Schwartz. "I thought to myself, this is unlike anything I've ever seen before. I've just really gotten lucky here."

Schwartz said Olivia stood out from most other titles in the crowded children's book field.

"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," said Schwartz. "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."

Born in 1959 in Ridgefield, Conn., Falconer studied art history at New York University before focusing on painting at the Parsons School of Design and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.

After incubating his talent as a theater designer with David Hockney, assisting the renowned artist with sets and costumes for Los Angeles Opera productions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Falconer went on to create set and/or costume designs for top-tier companies around the world, including Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, New York City Ballet and The Royal Opera.

Of his set design for The Atlantic Theater's production of The Santaland Diaries, The New York Times' theater critic Ben Brantley, wrote, "The cartoon cutout set by Ian Falconer looks totally chic in its monochromatic grayness."

"Their relationship blossomed into a lifelong friendship and an artistic collaboration lasting many years," said stage and screenwriter Jeff Whitty. The Tony Award-winning book author of the musical Avenue Q was a close friend of Falconer.

Ian Falconer continued to seek inspiration for his books from family members. For example, Two Dogs (2022), about the adventures of a pair of dachshunds, was inspired by his sister's children.

"Ian pointed out beauty in the overlooked," Whitty said. "He balanced bright, boyish curiosity and the wisdom of a grizzled sage."

Audio and digital stories edited by Ciera Crawford. Web copy edited by Beth Novey.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.
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