Award-winning author-illustrator, fine artist, and designer Ian Falconer, best known as the creator of witty picture books about headstrong, precocious piglet Olivia, died of natural causes on March 7 in Rowayton, Conn., with his family at his side. He was 63.
Falconer was born August 25, 1959, in Ridgefield, Conn., to Alexandra and Bruce Falconer and was the oldest of three children. Growing up, he attended the Long Ridge School in Stamford and the Cambridge School of Weston in Massachusetts, both.,progressive independent schools where Falconer could explore his interest in art. After high school Falconer studied art history at New York University for two years before transferring to the Parsons School of Design to study painting. He then left New York for Los Angeles when he transferred to Otis Art Institute.
In Los Angeles, Falconer began assisting David Hockney with designs for opera costumes and sets. The two formed a close bond and collaborated professionally for many years. In addition to opera, Falconer moved on to designing sets for theater and ballet including such diverse productions as Stravinsky’s Scene de Ballet for New York City Ballet, Firebird for Boston Ballet, and the Atlantic Theater Company’s Off-Broadway production of David Sedaris’s The Santaland Diaries.
By 1996, Falconer was again living in New York and pursuing illustration projects alongside his theater work. He landed the cover illustration for the July 8 issue of the New Yorker, the first of more than 30 covers he would create for the magazine.
Later that same year, Falconer crafted a small book featuring a story and drawings of a pig to gift his three-year-old niece Olivia at Christmas. The present was a hit, and with warm encouragement from his family and friends, Falconer decided to develop his holiday gift idea into a full-fledged picture book. He initially showed his work to an agent who was receptive, but Falconer became discouraged when the agent and a few editors suggested they find an established author to write a text for his illustrations. “I’d made this character and this story, and I really didn’t want it to be ‘illustrated by Ian Falconer,’” he said in a 2000 interview with PW. He filed the project away for nearly three years, until Atheneum editor Anne Schwartz—a fan of his New Yorker work—contacted him asking if he might want to illustrate a children’s book or have anything to show her. “And I had Olivia,” he told PW.
Schwartz was bowled over by the picture book dummy’s sophisticated images of the energetic pig’s adventures, rendered in black and white and accented with splashes of red. Atheneum’s Anne Schwartz Books published Olivia to great acclaim in 2000. The book quickly became a bestseller and received a 2001 Caldecott Honor. Falconer followed up with seven more bestselling outings for Olivia, wrapping in 2017 with Olivia the Spy.Last year, he expanded his children’s book oeuvre to include a new entry—Two Dogs (HarperCollins/Michael di Capua Books), a picture book starring dachshund brothers Augie and Perry with very different personalities and whom Falconer said are loosely based on—and named for—his twin nephews.
Anne Schwartz, v-p and publisher of Anne Schwartz Books at Random House Children’s Books, was Falconer’s first editor, beginning with her acquisition of Olivia during her tenure at Simon & Schuster Children’s Books. She offered this tribute: “Ian wasn’t only a keen observer of kids, he was very much a kid himself, in the best sense,” she said. “He was curious about everything, sweet, wickedly hilarious, empathic, deeply creative. I’d like to think that his incomparable work is a reminder to all of us in the industry that a picture book doesn’t need to be visually flashy or noisy to resonate with kids. It just needs to be true.”
Editor Michael di Capua, who worked with Falconer on his final book, recalled: “In 2000, the year the first Olivia book was published, I accosted Ian Falconer at a party and blurted out something like this: ‘Olivia is the only book ever published elsewhere that I wish I’d published myself.’ He looked at me as if I were a madman, possibly because I hadn’t identified myself, and I immediately dashed away. Not long after, Conrad Rippy, Ian’s devoted friend and lawyer, brought Ian and me together in a more relaxed manner, and our friendship flourished. Soon we agreed that we would eventually work on a book together. In 2019, that day finally came. Ian, Ann Bobco, and I plunged into our collaboration on Two Dogs, Ian’s last book. And what a passionate, fruitful collaboration it was! Ian was a joy to work with, and the three of us were shamelessly proud of the finished book. Ian is gone way too soon. That’s painful. There should have been more of his incomparable books.”
Ann Bobco, Falconer’s longtime collaborator, shared this remembrance: “As the art director book designer for all eight of Ian Falconer’s Olivia picture books I brought continuity to them all, spanning some 18 years and four editors. Anne Schwartz hammered Ian with the importance of having the text in place before the art came into play. Since Ian was such a visual thinker, he had a hard time keeping that in mind as he worked. He and I were similar in that way of thinking. We loved to throw out ideas for two pages’ worth of a visual gag and see where it might fit into a nascent story arc. Or come up with a whole new section that felt visually quite strong, but which had nothing to do with what came before it or after. It drove every editor crazy but was nearly always solved.”