Olga and the Smelly Thing cover

Olga and the Smelly Thing From Nowhere challenges gender stereotypes

Elise Gravel’s absurd graphic novel about a girl who loves animals and science — but not people — is an ode to friendship that will charm readers of all ages

Olga is a budding scientist who keeps an observation notebook like some kids keep a diary, and this book provides a peek into her quirky point of view. She professes to like animals more than people and is delighted when she finds a mysterious and smelly animal in the shed behind her house. Naming the being Meh, she attempts to learn more about this pink, furry, football-shaped species.

But she can’t do it alone, and eventually finds she must depend on other people to care for Meh. A lovely librarian, a good grocery store guy, a guy named Chuck, and a pair of girly sisters named Shalala and Farla all become friends, thanks to Meh.

Gender stereotypes be gone!

Elise Gravel, a Quebec-based artist and writer with more than 40 books to her name, loves to challenge gender stereotypes in her writing. It’s something she discusses explicitly on her website, where she even gives away free posters and ebooks (in both French and English!) for parents and teachers to share with kids when they talk about gender.

For example, check out the downloadable PDF called Artsy Boys and Smelly Girls at elisegravel.com.

Like many of Gravel’s young characters, Olga does not conform to gender stereotypes. She likes to wear plain, long-sleeved dresses, not frilly ones. She would rather do science experiments than read fluffy teen magazines about pop stars.

Olga’s differences prevent her from seeing the girly Lala sisters as potential friends. But by the end of the story, she finds that she does share some interests with them, and soon they are bonding at a party for Meh. It turns out the Lalas, in addition to their love for makeovers, like science, too, and Olga decides that some humans are alright after all.

As a mom, I see the ending as incredibly liberating. Olga has not compromised her gender identity, her love of science, or her devotion to learning to make new friends. More stories like this, please!

I also love that the book is presented in a gender-neutral visual style. My son loved this book, read it twice, and begged me to preorder the sequel, Olga: We’re Out of Here! which is due out March 13. It’s a myth that boys only like books about boys, and Olga is proof.

 Subversive hilarity

Kids love books that challenge adult rules and perceptions about what is appropriate. And this book is a huge success on that front. It’s not every day one finds a book that features an entire page of diagrams outlining different types of poop. Or a discussion of how it’s sort of cute when animals fart.

Gravel uses such subversive humour to grab kids’ attention and keep them enthralled. And it works. When my kid first saw this book, he ripped through the first half in one sitting. She creates a cockamamie world that looks very much like the one my son and his friends live in every day.

“My sense of humour is very childish and absurd and I feel very immature when I write books.” — Elise Gravel

In a 2012 interview with the Globe and Mail, Gravel admitted she sees the world the same way kids do, and she works that to her advantage. “My sense of humour is very childish and absurd and I feel very immature when I write books,” she said. “I’m writing for myself, and I’m a baby. I’m really a little, very excited child.”

Gravel relates to kids on their own terms, and I think that’s what my son loves about her work. He adores her Disgusting Critters series. And after he finished Olga, he read it again, then begged me to buy him the sequel, which is due out on March. 13.

Admirable adults

In some subversive books for children, adults are portrayed as nasty, untrustworthy troublemakers. I get that, and I understand why kids might sometimes see adults as antagonists.

But in this book, two adult characters help create a worldview where, even for a child who feels different and isolated, there is compassionate help.

Ms. Swoop, the tattooed, buck-toothed, punk-rock librarian is a great example. She makes time to help Olga research the origins of her new pink pet, and even lets her bring the smelly little guy into the library. And at the grocery store, a big-bellied, cowboy-boot-wearing Mr. Hoopah helps Olga discover the perfect nourishment for a previously unknown species: olives, of course.

Neither of these adults conforms to the idea that adults should be boring and responsible. They live in the same delightful world as Olga, which makes growing up not look so bad after all.


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