How Oliver Olson Changed the World by Claudia Mills

Oliver Olson is nine and lives with his parents in Colorado. Because he was sick before he started school, Oliver is only a third grader.  Oliver’s class is learning about the solar system and manned space craft.  When Mrs. O’Neill assigns them a solar system diorama for homework, Oliver’s parent take over . His mom carefully examines the rubric and questions his father on how to actually complete the diorama.  Oliver doesn’t have a say in the matter; he is merely the go-fer.  In class, Oliver and his classmates learn about the discovery that Pluto is no longer a planet.  Oliver’s classmate Crystal, a real chatterbox, protests the demotion of Pluto. After brainstorming their ideas, Crystal and Oliver develop a plan for their shared diorama. They’re going to put Pluto outside the box with a sign saying “let me in”.  Oliver is certain his parent won’t approve and arranges to do the project at Crystal’s house.  When they finish the diorama back at Oliver’s, both Crystal and Oliver discover how different life is for Oliver and his overbearing parent.

There are other things happening in third grade: the annual overnight at school is coming up and Oliver really wants to go.  When he asks his mother about the overnight, she says no… there are too many germs, he won’t brush his teeth for two minutes and there won’t be enough supervision. Oliver really senses that his over-protective parents aren’t the norm.  The other opportunity that comes to the third graders is that a politician is coming to school and Mrs. O’Neill wants her students to come up with an idea that can change the world.  Oliver’s mother has an idea about that–she thinks Oliver should submit a no U-turn policy for the school parking lot.  While experiencing Mrs. Olson’s heavy handed parenting, Crystal helps Oliver develop an idea that students should complete their own homework.  In the end, Oliver gets the courage to talk to his parents about homework, the school sleepover, and his burgeoning independence. 

I have mixed feelings about this book.  I liked the story. I liked how Oliver developed.  I loved Crystal. I loved that her dogs were named Bart, Lisa and Maggie and that Crystal was Oliver’s biggest ally.

So, what is the problem? Why the mixed feelings?  This isn’t the funny novel that you expect for this age group.   I do like the ideas presented in it; there aren’t a lot of problem novels for this age group. There is a reason for that.  Young readers, particularly boys, need to be engaged in the story to keep reading.   I think the school scenes didn’t seem real to me.  I thought the “teachable moments” were shoved down the students throat, and therefore, my throat.  Instead of giving students the opportunity to learn different aspects of the subject, the information was delivered in a lecture.  That isn’t what would normally happen in a third grade class and that is what felt odd to me.  Addtionally, I think there should be a new subject heading: overbearing parents-juvenile fiction.  Those two were over the top and the explanation that Oliver was sick wasn’t explained enough.

Is it enough to not recommend the book?  No, not at all.

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About SH

I'm a children's librarian in the western suburbs of Chicago. I've been involved with children's literature since working in a children's bookstore in 1990.
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