March 23, 2017
(++++) A STAR IS BORN, OR MAYBE HATCHED
Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere. By Elise Gravel. Harper. $12.99.
There are lots and lots of stories out there about kids who are not very good with other kids, or with adults, but who are super-good with something else, such as animals. But this book is not like all the others.
There are lots and lots of stories out there in which the pictures and text are equally important even though the works are not exactly graphic novels, being more of a hybrid form in the Dear Dumb Diary mode. But, again, this book is not like all the others.
And there are lots and lots of stories out there where an alien being or otherwise unimaginable creature of some sort is imagined and turns out to be very important indeed, or at least very interesting, or very strange, or some combination of those. But, yet again, this book is not like all the others.
Why not? Because Elise Gravel’s Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere combines elements of all three of the “lots and lots of stories” designed for preteens, and is hilarious – as well as slightly, ever so slightly, meaningful.
It all starts with the unusually weird title, which turns out to refer to a thing that turns up in Olga’s trash can one day. It smells like the trash, or maybe the trash smells like it; it is hard to be sure. The thing is the size of a piglet and has pink, trash-covered fur, plus a long, skinny, rat-like, prehensile tail. It says nothing but “meh” (constantly) and is terrified of bananas. It is in love with Olga’s Michael Jackson poster, does not speak Spanish, and does not seem to want to eat anything – not even Olga’s favorite food, macaroni and cheese with pickles. Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere features Olga trying to find out more about the smelly thing: she is a budding scientist, as she does not hesitate to explain (repeatedly), and her idol is Jane Goodall. Olga is initially fascinated by the smelly thing, which she has not yet seen, because she discovers that its poop is “the size of green peas, and shiny like marbles, but multicolored, like Skittles.” So, yes, there is a bunch of poop-related stuff here, which is scarcely surprising in an amply illustrated book for ages 8-12. But Olga’s interest in poop is scientific, not scatological, so there is purpose to it, all right?
Anyway, Olga – who likes to wear the same sack-like dress all the time and does not like to wear socks or shoes – explores the likes and dislikes of the smelly thing, which she dubs Olgamus Ridiculus (a pretty good name, all things considered), eventually finding out what it likes to eat (olives, which she discovers while visiting a store that sells, among other things, tuna flavored toothpaste and transparent diapers). But Olga fails to discover what the smelly thing actually is, despite a library trip during which she consults Weird Animals, Strange Animals, Bizarro Animals, Strange Life Forms, Cute Animals, and so on. It is during this library visit that Gravel shows her desire to have Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere be a bit more than its title and plot indicate: just as there are multiple references to Jane Goodall in the text, so is there some science in the library trip – Olga learns about the blobfish, naked mole rat, axolotl, tarsier and other strange real-world animals (which, however, Gravel’s cartoons show in not-at-all-real-world ways). True, this is not a major part of the book, but the underlying current of scientific exploration, which includes Olga using the scientific method by taking constant notes on the smelly thing and listing and numbering her observations, makes Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere a bit more than a pure romp.
Back in the “romp” material, though, Gravel offers hilarious illustrations of differently shaped dogs (because Olga decides to take the smelly thing to the dog park), and one of the funniest pictures in the whole book has Meh (the smelly thing’s name, of course) – threatened by big dogs – “puffing up like a giant puffer fish” and making a “FWEEE-EEEEK!” noise that looks as funny as it sounds when you see Meh making it. Eventually, thanks to Meh, Olga makes friends with some neighborhood girls she has always disliked – this is another bit of underlying seriousness in the book – and learns, among other things, that Meh tries to communicate with flies and only sleeps facing the North Pole. With a combination of ideas, attributes and attitudes like the one in Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere, can a sequel about Olga and Meh be far behind? Young readers will certainly hope the answer is not “meh” but “no.”