02/04/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
First there was Porky. Then came Babe. But the porcine darling of the moment is no barnyard habitué. Instead, the heroine of the hit children's books Olivia and Olivia Saves the Circus is a sophisticated swine with a love of Degas, ballerinas and, when she can find a pair that fits, red high heels.
The Olivia tales, which have sold nearly a million copies in the U.S., been translated into 17 languages, spawned two spinoff dolls and drawn raves from fans as diverse as Katie Couric and Mikhail Baryshnikov, are more than a success story. The creation of Ian Falconer, 42—an unmarried Connecticut-born illustrator and set designer—the books are also a special tribute. In 1997, as a Christmas gift for Olivia Crane, his then-4-year-old niece, he wrote and illustrated a yarn whose curly-tailed protagonist was named after her. "I was crying, it was so touching and funny," says Olivia's mother, Falconer's sister Victoria, 37. Happily for Falconer, who has also designed magazine covers and Disneyland floats, Atheneum editor Anne Schwartz agreed and ushered Olivia into print in October 2000. Its sequel followed a year later.
Today the girl who inspired the Olivia craze says she is "surprised, astonished and flattered" by the books' popularity. She also admits to certain similarities with her namesake—a fondness for the circus and the beach, for instance. But that's where the comparisons end, says the real-life Olivia. After all, she notes with 9-year-old aplomb, "I'm not a pig."