Interview: children's author Oliver Jeffers

by Guy Somerset / 30 March, 2012
Oliver Jeffers’s picture books celebrate and demonstrate the virtues of a boundless imagination and appetite for life, says Guy Somerset.

The “girl, much like any other” in Oliver Jeffers’s picture book The Heart and the Bottle has a head “filled with all the curiosities of the world”. The description might also fit the New Yorkbased Irish author, who is appearing at this year’s Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. But where the girl goes on to lose her sense of curiosity (“and didn’t take much notice of anything”), Jeffers’s picture books and work as an artist suggest his is very much intact.

From Jeffers’s 2004 book debut, How to Catch a Star, which introduced the first of his stick-legged characters, a boy in a red-striped T-shirt who “watched the stars from his window and wished he had one of his very own”, through The Incredible Book Eating Boy (2006), to last year’s Stuck, in which a boy throws and loses, among other things, a cat, ladder, kitchen sink, orang-utan, rhinoceros, house and “big boat” (really an ocean liner) up a tree as he tries to knock down his kite, the writer and artist has simultaneously celebrated and demonstrated the virtues of a boundless imagination and appetite for life.

Both qualities are there, too, in his art gallery offerings, whether paintings such as Adolf Dali and Still Life with Logic and a Choice of Beverage or his 4D Glasses and Machines for the Future projects (visit to find out more). Jeffers’s first picture book – his preferred term, as his books are neither intended for nor enjoyed by children alone – was “a bit of an accident” that began life as a series of paintings destined for the gallery wall, combining pictures and words according  to his artistic interest of the time.

“But once I had made the first several pictures I realised I had the meat and bones of a picture book in my hands.” There continue to be significant cross overs between Jeffers’s books and gallery work. “My picture books inspire a sense of humour in my art that might otherwise not be there,” he says, “and the art inspires the picture books not to become too sweet, so there’s a slight cynicism in there and they’re much closer to life in a lot of ways. Because of that, I can avoid being overly twee dealing with subject matter that could occasionally fall into those pitfalls.”

Jeffers’s picture books have brought him a more avid audience than artists are accustomed to. “With art, there’s a lot of pomp and ceremony to a certain degree, where people behave in a way they feel they should. That exists a lot in many of the art forms. But with picture books, because kids don’t really care what other people think, they react exactly like they feel. There’s an attitude there that’s refreshing. That said, I don’t make my books thinking ahead what a kid will want to read and want to see. I make my books for me, essentially.”

The Heart and the Bottle (2010), with its father figure inspiring the girl’s “delight in finding new things”, has the dedication: “For Gerard” – Jeffers’s mother’s brother, “a massive influence onmy creative thinking and a real mentor”. Unlike the character in the book, however, Gerard is alive and well; his chair hasn’t fallen empty like that in the book, after which “the girl thought the best thing was to put her heart in a safe place” and becomes closed to the world. It was mother’s death that inspired the book’s sense of loss and grief – and of overcoming it (putting the heart “back where it came from”).

“That’s not the way necessarily I reacted but I did observe other people reacting with a sense of self-pity and there was a destructive nature to grief that I thought was intriguing. Then, really, ultimately what happened was I realised the true nature of immortality is in telling stories and remembering and honouring and passing wisdom on. And that’s a thing to be very joyous about, I think. So whenever my family thinks about my mother now it’s with a lot of happiness and laughter. That was something I wanted to employ somehow.”

The empty chair is a nice subtle way of conveying its occupier’s death, I say. “It was a way of using an image to much more elegantly say something without using words. Because words can trip you up, and often if you just suggest something and show it visually, the way someone reads that without any words is much more eloquent than how they would if there were words involved.”

Growing up in Belfast in the 1980s and 90s, Jeffers was “filled with all the curiosities of the world”, too – “But at my own pace. I wasn’t particularly academic at school and I only really started to read and love knowledge when I didn’t have to do it. It was an interesting turnabout where it wasn’t until I left school before I started to throw myself into the world around me. As a child, I was very interested in certain things and very easily distracted by certain things. A lot of films and drawing and playing football.

And eating fish fingers and playing with small toy cars. All those things any kid does. But it wasn’t until I was in my higher teenage years that I found my way and knew exactly what it was I wanted to do.” There must have been a bit of kite-flying, too, for Stuck is dedicated “To those who were there”.

“We really did get a kite stuck in a tree. It wasn’t ours so we did need to get it back. We really did throw a few objects, a few of which did get stuck. But we did draw the line at a chair, because it was too dangerous. We couldn’t find a duck. And a car was too heavy to lift. It’s still there. The kite’s still stuck.”

There have been wonderful pop-up editions of Jeffers’s books, including The Incredible Book Eating Boy and Lost and Found (2005) – the latter, like The Way Back Home (2007) and Up and Down (2010), featuring How to Catch a Star’s boy in the red-striped T-shirt. And there is a tremendous iPad app version of The Heart and the Bottle. Given Jeffers’s artistic and intellectual adventurousness, one might expect him to be closely involved with these extensions of his work. But no, he leaves them to the experts, and although he admires iPad apps as “a wonderful means of looking at a story”, he sees them as an alternative, not a substitute (“like the video game version”). “For me right now, the most interesting platform is the actual physical book.”

Since Jeffers doesn’t see his books as being solely for children in the first place, does he find kids stay with him as they get older? “That seems to be the case. When I’m doing book signings, people definitely bring along all their old books, including older kids as well, who bring along versions of How to Catch a Star that are well-loved and thumbed and drawn in and have bits of food spilled on. Their mother explains – because they’re obviously too embarrassed – that they’ve had it since they were one or two years old. I have a very loyal fan base and they’ve all obviously been blessed with excellent taste, if I may say so.”

Although he has no children of his own, Jeffers does have ones he can road-test his books on. “And sometimes there’s a flaw in the logic that kids will pick up on. It’s not a point of make or break to the success of the book, but my thinking can be left of centre sometimes and it’s good to just put it out there and see what other people think of it. And those people include other artists, family members I trust and their kids.”

Have there been instances where he’s had to move more to the centre? “Not that I can really think of. People have definitely made suggestions and I do quietly think to myself, ‘This is why I make kids’ books and not you’, and so it moves on,” he says, laughing. And presumably the hope is that, as readers continue with him, he moves them a little bit to the left. “Well, I seem to be getting away with a lot of weird stuff. More so than when I was first beginning. Long may that continue.”

STUCK, by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, $18.99); Jeffers is appearing at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, May 9-13.
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