When I first interviewed Oliver Jeffers five years ago he was already a very successful artist and author, so I googled him to see what he’s been up to since then. Now internationally successful, he has at least fifteen books to his name, and is published in 30 different languages. A recent book, the gorgeous Once Upon an Alphabet (designed by his brother) is wittily dedicated ‘To Dad, Thanks for never making us get a real job.’
But google tells another story: film clips show him appearing at far flung book festivals, reading from his books and accepting tumultuous applause with modest aplomb. I learn about the exhibitions, the film adaptations, the BAFTA for Lost and Found, the paintings, the maps, the portraiture, a music video with U2 and of course his famous ‘Dipped Paintings’. With these paintings he is practising mnemotechnics – the art of memory. It was, I learn, a process known to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians and today it involves painting full size portraits and then, before they have been seen, lowering them into vats of enamel paint, partially obscuring them forever. This process, he tells me later, is in memory of his mother’s death, and he describes his dealings with a quantum physicist, with whom he discusses such things as hidden variables.
An Irishman, he lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is married to Suzanne, a structural engineer. When we meet in the foyer of a Soho hotel, the morning after the London launch of his new book, the first thing he shows me is a photograph of Harland, their baby son.
The book, Imaginary Fred, is something of a new departure, being a collaboration with Eoin [Artemis Fowl] Colfer and it posed an interesting technical problem for Jeffers: how was he to draw the eponymous Fred, whose job as an imaginary friend requires him to fade away discreetly when he’s no longer needed, i.e. when he’s replaced by a real friend? Jeffers solves the problem with digital half tone illustrations, a technique that creates shimmering dizzyingly dotty images that allow Fred to be ‘there, or not there’ as the situation demands. It’s a poignant story, with a nice twist. And if you remove the dust jacket, there’s a very tactile debossed (opposite of embossed) half tone image of Fred on the cover, from which you can then make a sort of brass rubbing.
Jeffers’s first book, How to Catch a Star, published in 2004, achieved instant success having famously been rescued from the slush pile by a perceptive editorial assistant. It was the first of Jeffers’s many books to find itself on to the bestseller lists. Jeffers explains to me the tremendous power of the American library system: children’s books are vigilantly assessed by the librarians and their opinions then filter through to schools, homes, the media, etc. It’s a fine arrangement and it usually works well, but it can go badly wrong, as it did in the case of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen which unbelievably was banned by librarians on account of the child’s nakedness! (I once met Sendak years after the event and he was still seething – almost tearful – over this.)
The drawings in How to Catch a Star – so familiar now – were really quite startling. The boy has a smooth spherical head with dots for eyes and a vertical ridge for a nose, defined by the shadow it casts. This almost cubist image has a timeless abstract purity, like a piece of ancient cycladic sculpture. The light source is important, says Jeffers, whipping out a stubby pencil and deftly adding a little shading on my notebook where I’d been trying to create a Jeffers-style face. There’s often no mouth to speak of (or with) and the round face of this little innocent abroad is quartered with shadows that suggest the changing phases of the moon and recall Tomi Ungerer’s wonderful Moon Man. Similarly, the child’s stripy jumper
references Jeffers’s favourite monster in Where the Wild Things Are.
Jeffers has been ‘hugely affected’ by Sendak’s work: ‘Sendak wasn’t really writing for children,’ he muses, ‘he was writing for himself. And importantly he never patronised young readers – that’s really one of the very worst things you can do’. And throughout the wildly imaginative diversity of his own work, Jeffers never spoon feeds, or talks down to children – he simply credits them with the ability not just to enjoy, but to explore, understand and inhabit the story, immerse themselves in it. And if necessary to question it …
Jeffers talks a lot about the gap between logical thinking and emotional understanding. The Heart and the Bottle is an extraordinary example of how a picture book really can make you think, however old you are. A young girl is grieving over the loss of her grandfather. Inconsolable, she takes her heart out and puts it in a bottle for safe keeping. But then when the time comes, she has great difficulty retrieving it and putting it back where it belongs. This story was inspired by the death of one of Jeffers’s close relatives. Rich in significant imagery, it has the uncompromising quality of a fairytale. You don’t question it. The text is spare and straightforward while the illustrations work overtime – airy widescreen elemental landscapes are interleaved with the rich colours and warm textures of family life – and Jeffers also makes eloquent use of the plain white space that so importantly gives pause for thought in what is often the hurly-burly of the picture book.
Jeffers is well known for his landscape painting but in This Moose Belongs to Me, he has appropriated the work of a Victorian painter Alexander Dzgursky. This ‘borrowing’ adds a further dimension to an interesting theme of ownership in a very beautiful, wryly funny story about a huge moose who has been befriended by a young boy. It’s a glorious friendship, but the boy gets a shock when he finds that he’s not the only ‘owner’ of the moose, who has been generously befriended by several other people in the area (remember Six Dinner Sid?).
Finally, one question everyone, including me, wants to know is why all Jeffers’s characters have such stiff straight legs. No knees. Why? ‘Well it has become a bit of thing,’ he admits, ‘and though you might think it’s an easy option, it can be quite difficult to make it work.’ In Stuck, for instance, the boy throws everything he can find – including a rhinoceros – into a tree to release his kite: ‘I had to make several attempts to get that rhinoceros looking natural up a tree.’
Joanna Carey is a former Children’s Books Editor of The Guardian.
Books, all published by HarperCollins Children’s Books:
Once Upon an Alphabet, 978-0-0075-1427-4, £20.00
Lost and Found, 978-0-0071-5036-6, £6.99
Imaginary Fred, 978-0-0081-2614-8, £12.99
How to Catch a Star, 978-0-0071-5034-2, £6.99
The Heart and the Bottle, 978-0-0071-8234-3, £6.99
This Moose Belongs to Me, 978-0-0072-6390-5, £6.99