Children’s author Oliver Jeffers on explaining the world to his son – one room at a time | Life and style | Amazing Articles

Children’s author Oliver Jeffers on explaining the world to his son – one room at a time | Life and style

When Oliver Jeffers and his wife brought home their newborn son from hospital, they paused at the door to their apartment in Brooklyn, New York. The three of them stood on the threshold of family life. It was Jeffers who broke the silence. “Here we are,” he said. “It’s sort of a Northern Irish thing to say when you arrive somewhere or there’s a group of people and a moment’s silence,” he says now. Nearly two years later, the words would become the title of his new book.

Here We Are is unlike any of Jeffers’s previous books (16 as an internationally bestselling writer and illustrator, more as illustrator alone). To begin with, it didn’t start life as a book at all.

Once through the door of their apartment, Jeffers held Harland and took him on a tour of his new home. They moved from room to room, Jeffers pointing out a tree visible through a window, a shoe. “Just kind of going, yeah, how lovely is it to explain what a saucepan is for or why we eat lunch,” he says. Jeffers was hit by “this growing awareness that Harland knew” – he drops his voice – “absolutely nothing”.

Over the coming days and weeks, Jeffers kept up the tour, pointing out more and more things. He started to write down his sayings. The sayings mounted. A letter to his son, he thought. Wouldn’t that be nice for him when he is older? The tour extended to the neighbourhood. Jeffers would be wheeling the pushchair and find himself saying things such as: “People come in many shapes, sizes and colours … But don’t be fooled, we are all people!” He kept notes in his sketchbook or on his phone and added them to the lengthening letter. Then came the “eureka moment … this should be a book”.

“Well, hello. Welcome to this planet. We call it Earth,” begins Here We Are. (Jeffers’s words about people coming in all varieties are also included, almost verbatim.) Jeffers has long been interested in space, as a glance at the skyscapes in The Way Back Home suggests, and the book takes a telescopic view of the human lifeform, from the opening image of a father holding a baby (“I suppose it’s me,” he says. “I just thought: ‘Oh – dad figure!’”) to a wide-angle map of the solar system.

Oliver Jeffers illustration from Here We Are  - 7717 - Children’s author Oliver Jeffers on explaining the world to his son – one room at a time | Life and style



‘The pages are busy with life’ … an illustration from Here We Are.

After becoming a father, Jeffers, 40, “immediately went into this very weird state of macro and micro at the same time. I was completely focused on this tiny object, but more aware of the vastness of everything.” He has the theory of duality tattooed on his inner forearm, which, he says, is “all about perspective … You define something by how you choose to look at it”. This instinct informs the book. It would have been impossible to write had he not become a father, he says. “The perspective changed an awful, awful lot.”

Here We Are has Jeffers’s trademark warmth and humour, but it is a work of non-fiction and you can sense its author’s enlarging responsibilities. It has serious messages to deliver, too: we only have one Earth; body parts don’t grow back. Jeffers’s project began with him trying to explain these tricky concepts to his son, but he wound up trying to explain them to himself – “and hopefully putting out a reminder to other people of how simple the basic principles of humanity could be”.

While the artwork is recognisably Jeffers, the book diverges from his usual style. The empty skies and seas that open up space in How to Catch a Star and Lost and Found are crowded here. The pages have the feel of a compendium. They are busy with life – maybe because as a parent, as Jeffers says: “Life feels busier, the world feels busier.” Perhaps it also feels more corporeal, less winsome, because the humans in Here We Are appear to be a long way, in evolutionary terms, from the stick legs and lollipop heads of Jeffers’s best known books. Here, they have chunky torsos and athletic legs. Their limbs make shadows on their clothing. The animals are naturalistic.

Maybe after creating a fresh life, it felt wrong to draw even imagined lives in the old way. Maybe the world just felt like a messier, richer, more three-dimensional space. Maybe watching a real figure develop over the weeks and months made the drawn figures gain weight, too.

“It just felt natural. I didn’t really question it too much,” Jeffers says. He isn’t overly given to analysis. “People are interesting. Let’s make them look that way.” In fact, some of the figures are so naturalistic that one emotive spread, which points the young Harland towards a queue of figures to whom he can turn should his father not be around, is peopled with Jeffers’s own family.

“My wife, her brother, her parents and my dad,” Jeffers says. When he had finished the artwork for those pages, he brought it home and showed it to Harland. Jeffers asked him: “Who’s that?” and Harland responded: “Granny! Grandad! Uncle Rory!” Even the family dog curls up on the bed in this book, which offers a kind of extended family portrait, if you consider the Earth and every living thing on it to be family. Only the father and son maintain the old naivety of Jeffers’s figures. A psychoanalyst would probably have a field day, but Jeffers says this is just the way he normally draws. “Maybe I just couldn’t quite escape that.”

Jeffers was born in Australia, but he and his wife grew up in Belfast, where a portion of their families still live. As a child, Jeffers was more interested in “playing in the streets and getting dirty and climbing trees and digging holes” than books. But he always loved to draw. While the family was watching TV, “I was drawing pictures”, he says.

He was one of four brothers, but the house wasn’t noisy. His mother, who died 17 years ago, was bedridden with multiple sclerosis. “I think that changed the tone of the house. Not in ways that you would expect. There wasn’t a sadness or anything like that. But her room became the centre, the hub. We didn’t shy away from that, but I think we intuitively had a little more respect for the home setting.” He drew in the kitchen, outside her room, always showing her the drawings.

While Jeffers and his family now live in New York, they keep a place in Belfast. To Harland, they refer to these as “his Brooklyn home and his Belfast home”. At two, he has a Northern Irish accent. “But that’ll change once he goes to school,” Jeffers says. “And we don’t want to become one of these Americans in years to come who says” – he adopts an American accent – “I’m from Ireland.”

Jeffers didn’t become an avid reader until he went to university, but sometimes he and his wife will notice that their apartment has gone very quiet and go in search of Harland. He will often be found in his room, “his nose in a book”.

He likes the ones by Jeffers. On a recent visit to their Belfast relatives, Jeffers came across an old copy of The Way Back Home. “It’s actually dedicated to my wife. And I read it for the first time in six or seven years. To him. And I was like, actually, this is not bad. This is a good book!”

He has no idea if his wife has read any of his work. He once overheard her talking to someone about The Day The Crayons Quit, around the time the book was celebrating its second anniversary at the top of the New York Times bestseller chart. She must have been whispering, because Jeffers lowers his voice to mimic her. “‘Two years! Well, I should probably read it, then, shouldn’t I?’”

Harland, meanwhile, who is expecting a sibling in the new year, has clearly got to grips with what his father does for a living. In spring, the family went to the Hay festival, where they shared a cottage with Neil Gaiman and his wife, Amanda Palmer. “Why are all these other children looking at my daddy?” Harland wondered. “After that,” Jeffers says: “He started looking at me and saying, ‘Oliver Jeffers?’” For a long while, he addressed his father as Oliver Jeffers Daddy. “So I think he gets it,” Jeffers says.

On all his books, Jeffers’s author photograph shows him as a child. In the past, he has described himself as his “own target audience”. But on Here We Are, the cover photograph shows Jeffers holding Harland. In spirit, at least, they are co-authors. No wonder Jeffers found it “surreal” to read his latest title to Harland for the first time. If he wrote all his other books thinking of the child he was, he has written this one thinking of the child he has.

Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers is published by HarperCollins (£14.99) on 14 November. To order a copy for £12.74, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p on orders of more than £10, online only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


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