Wednesday 20 November 2019

The book chief

His picture books enchant children worldwide, U2 asked him to do their artwork and he's won countless awards, including a Bafta for his animated film.

Oliver Jeffers. Photo: Malcom Brown.
Oliver Jeffers. Photo: Malcom Brown.
CREATOR: Oliver Jeffers, pictured in his Brooklyn studio, is inspired by real life. He always carries a pen and paper with him as inspiration is everywhere

Maggie Armstrong

New York is recovering from a blizzard and the NYPD is issuing warnings about ice falling from rooftops, but things sound quiet in Oliver Jeffers' studio in Brooklyn.

The artist from Belfast is sitting with his dog Scampi. Your correspondent is in Dublin, alas, reading his books and studying his face in a picture. With his carved jawline, dark eyes and occasional fedora hat, Jeffers looks more like a rockstar, and what's the difference, you ask.

He has illustrated and written roughly a book a year for the past 10 years; he just put his latest, a "whopper", to print. He's worn down his wrist, and needs surgery on a torn ligament.

His books are read in 30 languages and have adaptations and awards trailing from them, including a BAFTA for the animated film of 'Lost and Found'.

Then, he moonlights as a visual artist. He met Bono socially, as you do, and was asked to do the vinyl sleeve and lyric video of U2's 'Ordinary Love'. This was made collaboratively in his studio (he works there with a team that includes his wife and business manager, Suzanne) and for the sleeve he painted a youthful Nelson Mandela.

This is the moment an artist arrives, and he's only 36. U2 were "fantastic" to work with, he tells me in his melodious Belfast accent (it should be noted that he was born in Australia but his family moved to Northern Ireland when he was two).

"They appreciated that we were also artists and they were respectful and courteous and yeah, just gentlemen," he says. It would almost awaken the cynic in you, but it doesn't.

Anyone who's read 'Peepo!' 20 times in a sitting to a small child must be glad of Jeffers. His books are for everybody – all the family, and for a better, more inclusive humanity. They tell ingenious fables of little girls and boys lost, finding their way to knowledge and safety.

The pictures engulf your otherwise ruined attention span. Some of his handiwork, like 'The Incredible Book Eating Boy', seems too good for printing; you want it all to yourself. It's not just the lush natural world, dotted with teeny babe wanderers, peach-skinned and stick-legged with tin-can bodies and sad eyes, it's the currency of his themes. How we drown in the information age, how we deal with death, how we become hipsters.

Growing up, he tells me, the first book that grabbed him was 'The BFG' and after that he read everything by Roald Dahl. The son of a teacher and a nurse, he says he was "not remotely" a high achiever at school or while attending the University of Ulster, where he studied visual communication. Then he spent a year in Sydney working in bars to support his art practice, and realised he wanted to do two things: make picture books, and paint.

"Picture book maker" is his phrase, because he doesn't consider himself a writer. Not even, it turns out, a children's writer. Perhaps this is a disclaimer against didactic duties.

Before speaking to Jeffers I had a long gaze at 'The Heart and the Bottle', my nephew's current favourite. It's about a little girl who finds an empty bottle and pulls out her heart, because she's lost her joy. Explaining death to children is not something we have down to a T. Was the story Jeffers' way to address this?

"It's a way for me to address that, not necessarily for kids, but for everyone, myself included," he replies. "I don't necessarily write books for kids, I write books for me. And it just so happens that kids find them accessible. And other people do too.

"Maybe selfishly the reason I make books is I want to satisfy my own sense of curiosity."

In his books he uses as few words as possible to let the pictures tell the story. Pictures nurture a child's imagination. "I think they're creating visions inside their heads," he says. "If you read something that's a very powerful visual and you close your eyes, you see it better.

"My friend Max, his daughter has this series of books that she's reading at the minute, she's six. Max discovered that this series of books is now a TV series. He was really excited, thinking that she'd be excited about that, and she was like 'yeah, I know, I don't really wanna watch it', and he was like 'oh, how come?', and she said 'I don't like the sound of his voice, I like it better in my head'."

What a precocious little dote. Does he meet a lot of these? "All children are really clever," he says, and pauses to consider what we can learn from them. "The way in which children see the world, I sometimes wish that adults remembered how to do that. There's a lack of cynicism in lack of experience. We think we know everything. There are small wonders, and a curiosity that could be learned."

He agrees he may never have lost that ability. "I always like to reference, whenever people ask me, why did you become an artist, Picasso's famous answer – 'When did you stop? All children are born artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.'"

You imagine children's writers to be peculiar people, elfish Peter Pans reluctantly visiting from a fantasy realm. The Romantic poet William Blake wouldn't have written 'Songs of Innocence' and 'Songs of Experience' had he not seen angels in trees. Roald Dahl described himself as an "undeveloped adult" who had kept hold of his "jokiness". Like many children's writers, he wrote because his kids begged him to invent tales.

Jeffers doesn't have kids. You expect him to be avuncular. Does he like kids? The question irks him as much as it has Sir Quentin Blake. "Again, I don't think you can lump all children in the one category. I don't get on with all kids. I get along with some people; I don't get on with all people."

Is he expected to be a fun guy at signings and launches? "Yes," he answers immediately. "That's exactly what's expected of you when you go to events – is to be an entertainer. By default people who make picture books tend to be the shy retiring sort, so this is a huge form of anxiety for many. I've learned how to deal with it by having good material, and extending the sense of humour from my books".

Jeffers isn't a cracker of many jokes, today. He seems a quiet fellow, industriously whittling through questions but with clarity and depth. Every topic is important, from forgetting to eat lunch, to state support for artists (good in Belfast, not so in NYC) to sectarianism (raised Catholic, he went to one of the first integrated schools in Belfast), to the taboos of European history.

I ask him about some of his paintings, as he seems to be casting a playful eye at religious diversity. In 'Uniformity and Identity', a Hassidic Jew wears an austere costume but for a pair of red Nike trainers. Jeffers spied him from the back of a taxi in Jewish-populated Williamsburg and had to paint him. "He was rebelling in his own way against this very disciplined culture. There was ridicule, defiance, individuality, tied up in this whole painting."

Another work, 'Dictators and Hair' portrays a vexed looking Hitler with a Salvador Dali twirled moustache. "In the New York art world it's not a little known fact that Jewish money seems to run behind a lot of the galleries," he says. "I wanted to imagine a fake history where Hitler hadn't been rejected from art school." He was warned it would get him in trouble but it didn't. A German bought it.

He carries paper and pen with him everywhere, because inspiration is everywhere. "It could be something that someone's said, that you've misunderstood, could be something that you glimpsed at from the corner of your eye, you just never know. Real life inspires me. And then something is in my head and it gets distorted and comes out in another way, that's the book."

He has a place for those ideas that misfire or don't work, too: his forthcoming 'Once upon an Alphabet', 26 short stories for each letter. "Oh yeah, I've got a sketchbook full of half-cooked ideas. In fact that's one of the reasons I came up with the alphabet book, to get a lot of these concepts that possibly never had enough might to fill up 32-page picture books."

After we hang up, I become immersed in his books again. He's not just a commercial success; he's the real deal, with a prodigious mind. I wish I had gotten more out of him. Then I remember Jeffers doesn't patronise his readers with lessons to take home. What we can learn from his work is to let no idea go to waste. Don't jettison your ideas, use them. Also, don't forget you're still a bit of a child.

Oliver Jeffers: Melancholoy and Joy in six books

2004 'How to Catch a Star', Jeffers' debut picture book about a little boy on a quest for a star, though all he really wants is a new friend.

2006 'The Incredible Book Eating Boy', lavishly illustrated tale of a little boy who consumes, but doesn't read books, and feels sick as a result.

2010 'The Heart and the Bottle', about death and transformation. It comes in an iPad app too. But, Jeffers says: "People don't want a book in digital form, they want a game; I think that's an important delineation to realise. There won't be any more app versions of my books."

2012 'This Moose Belongs to Me', winner of the Irish Book Awards Children's Book of the Year, about capturing nature. Little Wilfred finds a moose in a prairie landscape and gets in a tussle about who owns it.

2012 The Huey's in 'The New Jumper', part of his series about a little band of egg people, looks into how fashion tribes form: you wear a jumper you think is original, then someone gets the same one.

2013 'The Day the Crayons Quit', illustrated for the hilarious Drew Daywalt, in which a boy's crayons leave him notes about their dissatisfaction. The lessons about labour, race and discrimination can't be escaped.

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