About The Author
Oliver Jeffers was born in Western Australia and 1977 and grew up in Belfast. Coming runner-up in the Irish News Amateur Art competition in 1995 led him to consider turning an enthusiasm into a career. As well as producing paintings, he was also commissioned to illustrate book jackets, and travelled extensively in America and Australia, gaining illustration commissions as he went. In 2000 he graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Illustration and Visual Communication at the University of Ulster. Since then he has designed poster illustrations, album covers and artworks for a London bar - as well, of course, as picture books for children.
In his picture books Jeffers explores such themes as friendship, independence and imagination, rendered in a childlike, almost poetic style with humour and empathy. The first books were painted in watercolour, but Jeffers has also used acrylics and even Dulux house paints.
Jeffers' books have won and been shortlisted for numerous awards: his first, How to Catch a Star, was published in 2004 to instant acclaim and went on to be shortlisted for the Booktrust Early Years Award for Best New Illustrator and win a Merit Award at the CBI/Bisto Book of Year Awards. Other awards followed for subsequent books: in 2005 Lost and Found won the Gold Award at the Nestle Children's Book Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award, and was made into a short aminated film, while The Incredible Book-Eating Boy won the Irish Book Awards' Children's Book of the Year in 2007. In 2007 Jeffers was the official illustrator for World Book Day. In 2011 The Heart and the Bottle was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award. Amongst other things, The Day the Crayons Quit won the Children's Choice Award in the 2014 Children's Book Council Awards.
His new book, Here We Are, explores what makes our planet and how we live on it, from land and sky, to people and time. Below, exclusively for Foyles we talked to Oliver about how becoming a parent inspired his latest book, how he became political almost in spite of himself, and his current favourite thing to draw.
Questions & Answers
Tell us about your book, what were your ultimate aims in writing it?
As the subtitle suggests, this book is a set of notes for living on Planet Earth and it’s kind of aimed at absolute beginners, or at the very least their parents who are completely fresh to the idea of having to explain everything to this blank canvas of new life. My original aim in writing it was to describe, in an idealistic way, how things are supposed to work on this planet. The very, very, basic things. It was completely inspired by the birth of my son, but in a way it also became a reaction to the aggressive, self-centered politics that began sweeping through the western world in these last few years. I became increasingly frustrated and dumbfounded by the hatred and ‘me first’ mentality that began taking root. I started making more and more political statements and observations on social media, something I never thought I’d do, as I wanted to be able to look my son in the eye in years to come and say I tried to stand up for what was right. Much of that emotion filtered down into this book since, as well as for new parents, these basic principles of humanity I try to address can always do with being re-addressed, regardless of your age or beliefs. It certainly helped me to re-remember them.
As both the illustrator and author of Here We Are, which came first the words or illustrations?
Normally, I write and illustrate books at the same time, in that I conceive how it will look at the same rate of development as I consider how it will sound. If I can show something, I will choose to do that rather than say it. In this instance, however, the book was written almost in its entirety before I started thinking about how it might look. Basically, as we brought our son home from the hospital, I started giving him a tour of our home, and realised that he really truly knew nothing, and that it was up to us to teach him. As the next few weeks went by, while I was explaining things to him, I started jotting them down, almost in the form of a letter to him. That letter is not very different at all from the manuscript of this book, although I’ve tried to make it a little more inclusive to allow other people in.
Would you say this is a book you have always wanted to create or has it felt more relevant since having your first child?
This is quite clearly inspired by having my first child. These are things that I have always felt, about the inclusiveness and generosity of humanity being essential to our well-being on this planet, but if I hadn’t had a child it is less likely that these thoughts would have formed into a book.
Explaining Planet Earth to children is a complex subject, but every new parent does it in their own way. It was only when I found myself deep into this process that I realised it might make for a decent book concept. It was only after I had said most of the things that are written in this book, and in that order, that I thought to write it down.
Any advice for prospective parents who are worried about explaining the world to their child?
There is an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I’m learning the merits of that. The world is filled with different types of people and my way may not always be the right way or the best way, and I have to be aware of that. Plus, I’m only two years into this gig, and so wouldn’t dream of offering any advice, as I’m a pretty far way off from thinking I know anything for sure.
What is your absolute favourite thing to draw?
Either thunderclouds or light bulbs. Currently.