Olga and the smelly thing from nowhere
by Elise Gravel
For readers aged 8-12 years
It’s September which means it’s #WorldKidLit Month! As I ambitiously wrote last week, I’ve decided to join the challenge this year by planning a bit of armchair travel to every continent. With a small stack of great new kids and YA e-books in translation, I’ve plotted my world trip to include visits to Canada, Chile, Japan and Iceland.
I felt like I needed a laugh and a bit of colour this week, so I headed to North America with Elise Gravel’s extremely eye-catching Olga and the smelly thing from nowhere.With its bright pink cover introducing the main characters and an intriguing title, I felt there had to be entertaining new friends inside and something that would hopefully make me chuckle. And chuckle aloud I did!
Olga introduces herself immediately on the first page, telling us what she likes to wear (her long-sleeved red dress), or doesn’t (socks and shoes), what she likes to eat (mac and cheese with pickles), and how she feels/looks like she feels (grumpy even when she’s not). This introduction is in precisely the style she narrates the rest of the short book, which is in fact her OBSERVATION NOTEBOOK of the mysterious smelly thing that soon appears from nowhere.
As a girl who loves animals, Olga is certainly not afraid to explore the garden when she discovers some smelly rainbow-coloured poop. Yes, this smelly thing has left some smelly poop that needs to be analysed and compared with other kinds of poop. And of course there are a few of those farts that young readers love too! But don’t worry, as one friend said, ‘it’s poop, but it’s cute!’ Olga dreams of becoming a famous scientist one day who makes exciting discoveries, so she’s over the moon to have already found an unusual creature to observe and identify. She tries to figure out what language it speaks – not French like her spider, or Spanish – what it eats – none of the normal pet foods – and how she should take care of her new olgamus ridiculus who also goes by the name Meh. Her research takes her to the local library where she’s helped by Ms Swoop. She then heads to the dog park where she makes friends with a boy who ‘had a haircut like an angry kid had drawn it,’ and his dog Mister that has an incredibly large bladder and needs to pee everywhere (yes, there’s a lot of pee too!). Worried that Meh is dying of starvation, Olga calls in at Mr Hoopah’s shop, and gets help finding the perfect – extremely unexpected – food for this new as yet to be identified smelly thing.
All is not carefree in this beautifully illustrated book that is a crossover between a chapter book and graphic novel. We learn early on that Olga doesn’t have many friends, struggles to act the way a girl 'should', and is even teased by the two girly-girly Lala sisters who live next door. Meh also goes missing from the garden just after Olga finally figures out what to feed him. By Chapter 8, Olga is on The Quest, hunting in recycling bins, down manholes, up trees, and calling on her friends for help. Eventually ‘peeing machine’ Mister leads Olga to the Lala girls’ door where, to Olga’s surprise, Meh has been carefully transformed from ‘fart balloon’ to a lavender-scented, fluffy curly-haired creature wearing a giant pink bow. The Lala girls also kindly inform Olga that Meh is in fact FEMALE! After completing a reverse makeover, Olga decides to hold a party to celebrate, inviting her friends and also pushing herself to invite the Lalas, realising that there are many more reasons to do so than simply exclude them because she thinks they’re annoying. All ends well with the celebrations, and Olga can happily conclude that ‘Some Humans are OKAY after all.’
Elise Gravel wraps up the story with a gorgeous annex that includes a Meh & Olga Scrapbook, a recipe using Meh’s favourite food (you’ll have to read it to find out), and a template young readers can use to apply ‘The Scientific Method’ when observing new species, a fun way to introduce the world of science.
This delightful book had me laughing out loud at both the pictures and the ups and downs in the story that appeal to kids (yes, I admit it, the drawings of a poopologist’s anaylsis got me too!), as well as a few things that can surely only appeal primarily to adults reading along with kids (such as Meh’s fascination with Olga’s Michael Jackson poster). The story encourages children to observe the world around them carefully, thinking about animals and their environment. It also addresses questions such as what it means to be a boy or a girl (do girls only have to like magazines with fashion tips, or can they be scientists unconcerned with the latest fashion trends?). And finally, Olga’s relationship with the Lala girls offers an opportunity to discuss teasing, bullying, and how children can perhaps eventually become friends once they get to know each other better.
From Montreal, Elise Gravel writes in both French and English, and has published more than 30 books. Check out her website to discover other titles and download free printables, including a beautiful sheet of famous women scientists. I’ll definitely be picking up more of her books soon.