The Thing About Oliver


Deborah Kelly, The Thing About Oliver, Wombat Books, October 2019, 144 pp., RRP $14.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781925563818

‘Sometimes I feel just like the glass in my fish tank – people look right through me.’

‘It’s half past four in the morning and Oliver is still screaming. Most eight-year-olds would have run out of steam by now, but not my brother. He’s got more energy than a bucket full of electric eels.’ Deborah Kelly communicates so much with this opening paragraph of her outstanding chapter book.

Tilly lives with her mum and younger brother Oliver. We know that she is twelve, because she has twelve neon tetras in her fish tank – ‘one for every year of her life’. Her life is dictated by Oliver’s needs. Oliver has autism, and requires constant care, monitoring and therapy sessions. Small changes to his routine can result in hours of screaming and self-abuse. Her mother is emotionally and physically exhausted, and often has little energy in reserve to give Tilly the attention she yearns for; ‘Mum is sitting in the hallway with her arms wrapped tightly around Oliver…After a few moments, Oliver sighs. I feel a little pang of jealousy. I can’t remember the last time Mum hugged me like that.’

Tilly dreams of becoming a marine scientist. She knows all about life in the oceans, and spends her spare time drawing fish and dreaming of snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. But they live in a drought-stricken town, and Tilly doesn’t even know how to swim. When her mum loses her job, she announces that they are going to move to her sister’s house on the Queensland coast. Tilly is torn: she is so excited by the prospect of learning to swim and snorkel; but she is fearful of the effect this move will have on Oliver.

All the characters are drawn with a deft hand. You feel empathy for them all. Tilly’s mum is struggling to do the best for her children and is totally exhausted. There is never any mention of Tilly’s father. Tilly loves her brother, but it’s not always easy to like him. ‘He breaks the things we love without ever feeling bad. He can’t play games with me or hug me. He can’t even look me in the eye. And how do I know that Oliver even loves me?’

The publisher’s promotional material says, ‘this book shines a light on glass children; those children who are overlooked as their sibling needs more parental attention.’ Deborah Kelly does indeed shine a light, but not only on this issue. She shines a light on a feisty, independent and totally relatable character who many readers will fall in love with, no matter what their family structure may be.

Highly recommended for Upper Primary School readers.

Reviewed by Gabrielle Meares

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