Book Review Wednesday: Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen


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OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN
Delacorte Books for Young Readers
March 13, 2012, 288 Pages
ISBN: 978-0385740524

Donna Gephart won the 2009 SCBWI Sid Fleischman Humor award for her debut novel AS IF BEING 12-3/4 ISN’T BAD ENOUGH, MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT! In OLIVIA BEAN TRIVIA QUEEN, Gephart’s third novel, the author known for her humor does not disappoint.

Olivia Bean has some very clear cut goals. She wants to be better at geography. She wants her father’s approval. She wants a friend. Olivia is sure that the path to her goals is to be a contestant on kid’s week of the game show Jeopardy!. This course of action is not far fetched. All the Bean’s are trivia crazy from Olivia, to her kindergarten brother Charlie, to her absent father. In fact, the bits of trivia that pop up throughout Olivia’s day successfully develop her character and keep the story moving forward.

Gephart creates many true-to-life characters who are full of faults. Perhaps the most flawed is Olivia’s father. An obsessive card player and gambler, he left Olivia’s mother and moved West with Olivia’s best friend’s mother. Just this is enough to turn a reader’s stomach, but Gephart doesn’t stop there. This father schedules calls with his kids and doesn’t follow through. He brushes Olivia off when she needs his support, and he shames her about the challenges she has with geography. Still, Olivia loves him.

Charlie, a five year old who hardly remembers his father, is just as enamored of trivia as Olivia but he prefers the gross variety. If you want to know how many bacteria there are in a square inch of armpit, or why a flamingo pees on its own leg, Charlie Bean can tell you that. Charlie is a constant source of comic relief in this sometimes very serious story. Gephart writes kindergarteners well and the dialogue between Charlie and Olivia is authentic, funny, and often heart warming.

Olivia lives with her journalist mother and almost step-dad Neil. While both are supportive and attentive, Olivia misses her father. She also misses being her mother’s confidant– a relationship that often occurs between a single parent and the oldest child. As the family faces money issues, Olivia matures and comes to terms with the fact that Neil is Mom’s new main source of support.

The book is written in first person present tense. This point of view transmits a sense of urgency– not only the reader, but also the narrator, is unaware of what comes next. Sometimes, the present tense can seem self-conscious and jars the reader out of the story. This was the case in OLIVIA BEAN. The benefit of this technique is that neither readers nor Olivia know if she will make it onto or win Jeopardy!. However, a past tense telling would have been just as exciting and more in keeping with the middle grade genre.

There are subtle chuckles tucked throughout OLIVIA BEAN TRIVIA QUEEN as well as a few laugh out loud moments. In this fast paced story for middle graders, the humor is a successful vehicle for more serious and skillfully handled coming of age issues.

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