Noe Valley Voice December-January 2000

The Creative Team Behind Olive, the Other Reindeer

By Olivia Boler

Browse through any bookstore this time of year and you are likely to find a display of children's holiday stories. One book that may be prominently featured is Olive the Other Reindeer, by Noe Valley residents J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh.

"It's a good story," says Seibold, who illustrated the book. "It's probably the best one we've written."

The book, published by Chronicle Books in 1997, follows the odyssey of Olive, a little dog who, taking a walk one December day, hears the people around her singing "All of the other reindeer...," a line she mistakes for "Olive the other reindeer." Olive decides her true calling is to help Santa at the North Pole, and indeed her sharp sense of smell ends up leading Santa's sleigh out of a fog bank.

The success of the book has led to other manifestations of Olive, some of them more welcome than others to her creators. Olive's image graced the window displays of Nordstrom stores during last year's holiday season. Seibold and Walsh also sold the TV rights to Fox. The production company of Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons and Futurama) animated the story, and it appeared on television last year, featuring the voices of Drew Barrymore and Tim Meadows, as well as music by R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. The network has told Seibold that it will air on Dec. 14 this year.

"Compared to TV, the book industry is gentle," says Seibold. "I really didn't like having to learn to speak 'Hollywood.' Once you sell your story to TV, they own everything, and you can't stop them from using or selling the story and images to say, Carl's Jr."

"We were naive when it comes to the ugly monkey world of television," adds Walsh, his wife and collaborator.

On the other hand, because of the success of Olive the Other Reindeer, which has sold over 500,000 copies, the couple have been able to continue working on other creative projects they love. One of those projects is their web site, www.

They created the web site about six years ago, attracted by the idea that they could do something imaginative on their own, something they could offer free to anyone with Internet access. They hope to publish their own books, from cheap paperbacks to art books, and not worry about making profits for some giant corporation.

The work-in-progress that excites Seibold the most is Bubblesoap, an animated rock band of bears named by their 5-year-old daughter, Amelia. Bubblesoap is what Seibold terms "narrative animation," a form that uses sound, animation, and interactivity. The bears will eventually play songs that Seibold and Walsh plan to write and have their rock star friends perform. Right now, if you visit the web site, you'll hear the band playing a continuous loop of drums and music.

"It's so unusual to find a web site that both adults and kids will like," says Walsh. "There's this rush to animate the web with fart jokes. Kids grow up fast -- our 8-year old, Thea, says she's too old for Britney Spears now, as if only 5-year-olds can listen to Britney! -- but I think our books and the web site are things for both kids and parents to enjoy."

Seibold and Walsh believe the web site and self-published books will pay for themselves through related merchandise such as T-shirts and posters.

In fact, the couple have a shop in the Sony Metreon that opened in November called Bubblesoap which already sells T-shirts, jackets, purses, bags, books, pencil boxes, and little stuffed-animal Olives. A company called 1X2 makes the clothing, and the decorative graphics are Seibold's illustrations.

"Apparently, we're very big in Japan and Sweden," says Seibold. One can see why, as his style of drawing has a quirky, anime quality, an edgier version of Hello Kitty done in muted colors. Japanese characters decorate some of the clothing, which has a boxy, retro style.

Seibold and Walsh have collaborated on seven children's books in total. Their first book was Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride, inspired by one of their dogs, Dexter. Other books include Monkey Business and Penguin Dreams. Seibold recently illustrated The Pig in the Spigot, written by poet Richard Wilbur.

The couple, both of whom are Bay Area natives, have been together for 20 years and have three children -- Thea, Amelia, and Ulysses, age 3 -- whom they often turn to for inspiration. They have lived in Noe Valley for six years.

"We go to Martha's [Coffee] every day," says Seibold.

"We don't make our own coffee," adds Walsh. "And J. Otto has been deputized at the [24th Street] Cheese Shop."

Before the success of Olive the Other Reindeer, Walsh spent some time writing for San Francisco Focus and other smaller magazines. Seibold also did some commercial illustrations for the magazine as well as for others. He is a self-taught artist with a background in architectural design. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is featuring his work now through Jan. 28, 2001. Pieces include photos, iris prints, collage, a bit of Bubblesoap animation, as well as his children's artwork. Seibold often incorporates his family's drawings into his books; in fact, Thea wrote two pages of Olive the Other Reindeer.

The couple's publisher had been asking them to do something for "the shopping season," and for years they had joked about the play on words from the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Their little terrier, Olive, inspired the joke.

Seibold kept the word "Christmas" out of the book. He wanted the story to have a universal quality, and he and Walsh did that by staying away from the commercialization of the holiday season and concentrating on children's fantasies. So far, the feedback has been very positive.

"People tell us how they incorporate the story [of Olive] into their family Christmas," says Seibold. "In the cartoon, a giant menorah burns at the North Pole, and we've had responses from Jewish families who really appreciate that," says Seibold. "It's interesting when others' interpretation of a story is completely different from what you intended, but that's the nature of books."