Author and illustrator William Joyce is hardly new to epic tales—he’s the creator of the bestselling Guardians of Childhood series of picture books and novels, among other—but his newest novel manages to be epic within a ten-block radius. Ollie’s Odyssey is the tender story of Ollie, a boy’s favorite stuffed animal, who is “toynapped” by the Toy World’s mechanical villain, Zozo, and his henchmen. The boy gathers his courage for the neighborhood journey to rescue his homemade “funny little rabbit toy.”
On this journey, readers enter a world of gloomy abandoned carnivals and bitter heartbroken toys of every stripe—once they were happy, but now they live in darkness. It’s up to the boy to save his favorite from this surreal, forgotten kingdom. While he does so, he learns that “belief is a powerful thing.” It’s an ambitious story with a narrative bringing to mind several children’s classics, including The Velveteen Rabbit. The relationship between the boy and his toy is especially vivid. After all, as Joyce tells Chapter 16 in an email interview today, there are few bonds as sacred as that between children and their most beloved toys.
Chapter 16: Can you talk about this story’s spark? What made you want to tell Ollie’s tale?
Joyce: I saw the preview for a film called Kooky’s Journey about a lost toy. It was filmed with puppets and actual toys in real settings, and it was like a bolt of lightning. I told my crew, “I wanna do a story about a favorite toy that gets lost and has to find its child. It’ll be an epic story in ten blocks.” It was a long time before I saw the actual movie of Kooky, and its story was very different from Ollie. But, oddly enough, when I went to Prague to do research on a story about the Golem, the first thing I saw was a kid playing with a Kooky doll from the movie. It was sort of magical and hilarious.
Chapter 16: Did any particular classic children’s books inspire you?
Joyce: I thought a lot about The Velveteen Rabbit, Winnie-the-Pooh, and a Danish book called Wool Man. The Velveteen Rabbit and Winnie-the-Pooh are about the bond between children and beloved toys. And The Velveteen Rabbit and Wool Man also are about the physical frailty of the things children love—that they can wear out or become lost. I still have my teddy bear from childhood, and he’s in pretty bad shape. I know people, adults and children, who have these poignant wads of blankets or stuffed animals that they still carry around or have tucked away in a box somewhere, and they are essential to these people. Some of these things are literally unrecognizable, they are so worn out. I’m talking dirty, mangled, smelly, almost grotesque lumps of fabric, yarn, and stuffing, and yet to the people they belong to, they are as beautiful as any treasure, as beloved as any actual person.
So, I sort of combined that with the heartbreaking last chapter of the second Pooh book, when Christopher Robin is trying to explain to Pooh that he is going away, that it’s time for him to grow up and perhaps no longer come and play at the Hundred Acre Wood anymore. And Pooh just can’t grasp what Christopher Robin is trying to tell him. So, Christopher gives up and lets Pooh believe that everything will stay the same. There’s something very gallant and poignant in that act of kindness.
My daughter, Mary Katherine, had a huge stuffed bear that she called Big Teddy. She’d had it since the day she was born, and he went everywhere with her. When she was seventeen and diagnosed with a brain tumor, Big Teddy went with her to St. Jude’s in Memphis, and Big Teddy was with her ‘til her last moments. My daughter was a very tough young lady, and that she took such comfort in this talisman of her childhood was very moving to me.
So I wanted to explore this sometimes extraordinary relationship, this humanity, that we sometimes share with things we know are not alive or real.
Chapter 16: Can you describe a part of the creation of this story that was challenging or surprising?
Joyce: I was in a sort of fever dream when I wrote this. I got so lost in the different mind sets of the characters. I imagined how a very young boy and a toy would see the world and adults and find language and grown-up behavior as sometimes strange and confusing. I mean, children take language so literally; my daughter used to point out to me that she did not “fall” asleep but lay down in her bed to go to sleep. So I had great fun remembering the things my daughter and son found peculiar about the way they perceived adults, and I made that not only a part of Billy’s character but also of Ollie’s. Ollie is as naïve as Billy in some ways, but he also senses that Billy will someday grow up and that grown-ups don’t have toys. So what does that mean for him?
Chapter 16: How, if at all, did the final story vary or evolve from early drafts?
Joyce: The basic spine of the story, the plot, stayed the same from the start to the finish. What I realized as I went along was that the theme of the book was about “remembrance,” that memory can make something or someone live long after they are gone. That memory, even if it’s about something that didn’t actually happen—such as, your favorite toy could talk and go on adventures—has a truth. That our memory of that belief has a power that is stronger than reality.
Chapter 16: Did the illustrations come as you wrote or afterward?
Joyce: The illustrations came all along the way and in chronological order. The last drawing I did was the last page of the book.
Chapter 16: Do you recall your own childhood “favorite” vividly?
Joyce: Yes, I do remember my favorite “Teddy.” He’s sitting on my desk now. I’ll send a picture of him. We’ve had many an adventure and traveled many a mile, and he was lost for more than ten years, but I found him in my parents’ attic the night before my wedding.
Chapter 16: What’s next on your plate? And will readers hear more from Ollie and Billy, by chance?
Joyce: I’m working on the last Guardians novel; it’s about Jack Frost. I’ve got several other books going on, and it looks like I’m going to direct a movie, starting this year. And, yes, there is a very good chance you will hear more from Ollie and Billy. And it’s in a very exciting and unusual way. So keep your fingers crossed.
Julie Danielson, a former school librarian, blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and writes about picture books for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage. Her first book, Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, was released in 2014.
Tagged: Children & YA