Oliver Jeffers’s versatility as an author and artist can be seen in books, on gallery walls and album covers, and in numerous other forms. He is the creator of several solo picture books, and illustrator of the bestselling The Day the Crayons Quit and its sequel, written by Drew Daywalt. Originally from Belfast, Ireland, Jeffers moved to Brooklyn 10 years ago, where he lives and works. His newest picture book, Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, takes the shape of a letter to his newborn son—presenting complex concepts about space, time, and humanity in a warm and conversational tone. We spoke with Jeffers about the challenges and joys of introducing the world to young readers, and the ways that fatherhood has given an immediacy to his storytelling.
Here We Are is dedicated to your son Harland. What led you to write this story for him?
It really was the coming together of many ideas. I found it humorous to be giving this two-day-old child, with no capacity to understand me, a tour of our apartment. The humor of that aside, there’s a magnitude to the realization of being responsible for this brand-new child and a new mind. So I started making little notes for him. It didn’t take very long for me to come to the idea that these collective notes might serve well together in an illustrated book.
At the same time, I felt this propulsion to comment on the direction planet Earth seems to be going in—the xenophobia and the politicization. Maybe I was more tuned into it, or I felt the volume of that sound had been turned up. It’s hard to say. But I found myself looking at this tiny person and at the enormity of the world at the same time. There was sort of a dark cloud looming over everything, and I felt I had to comment.
Before my wife was pregnant, I never really thought it my place to comment on social media. But that changed: I wanted to be able to say to my son I didn’t stand silent. I wanted to give a voice to those who may be having a difficult time putting their experience or emotions into words. And I realized it’s easy to complain and make noise. It’s difficult to take the next step and ask, “How do we turn this into positive action?” So I started being more proactive and more hopeful. The flavor of that, the tone of that, became the tone of this book. It came naturally, without thinking, as I was talking to my son and writing him letters.
What were those first months like, when you were getting used to being a father and working on the book at the same time? Do you feel like fatherhood is changing the way you think about and approach your work?
Previous to being a dad, my most productive times were evenings and weekends. I suppose because there was nobody in the studio. But the second I became a parent, those became the most sacred times. I began to structure my time in a more formulaic way. And I had to get used to working in front of other people. When you’re a parent, you have to show up even on the days you’re feeling too tired. So I’ve been trying to do the same amount of work in more condensed time.
This is the one project I’ve been working on since my son was born. I imagine it’s impossible that [fatherhood] won’t change my future work. For one thing, I’m reading more picture books than I have before. Publishers have gifted us books, a lot of classics. And there’s a lot of great material that’s being created that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
We’re having a second child on New Year’s Eve, so I’ll be telling stories to two children rather than to the child version of myself. My mother-in-law filmed me sharing Here We Are with my son, and his reaction was pretty hilarious. He just said, “Oh my goodness” and pointed at things, and got very excited.
Why did you choose to open with the quote by J.M. Barrie, “Always try to be a little kinder than is necessary”?
When it comes down to it, the book is about three things: Earth’s position in space, and cosmology to a certain extent; being a new parent and the responsibility of trying to help mold a new life; and what it means to be a person—the basic principle of humanity. It all comes down to the way I was taught to be kind.
My dad always said to me, and I quote this at the end of the book, “There are only three words you need to live by: respect, consideration, and tolerance.” I do think if everyone were a little more kind it would make a difference. I think there are more kind people than not, but unfortunately the people who are not kind tend to make a lot more noise.
There’s nothing in the book that’s not completely factually accurate; there’s nothing anybody can dispute. If readers take anything away, I hope it’s the sense that you are one unique individual among a planet of seven billion other unique individuals—to try to counter the mentality of selfishness and xenophobia, and to remind people that their actions carry consequences.
You’ve illustrated your own stories as well as books by other authors. How does your process differ when working solo vs. collaboratively? Do you prefer one over the other?
I don’t go out looking for collaboration, but I take each one as it comes. Before The Day the Crayons Quit, I’d sworn I’d never illustrate someone else’s text. I thought I had the balance of showing vs. saying something, and I didn’t want to be the visuals for someone else’s concept. But that manuscript was so different—the letters are so important to the visual structure of the book. It was a fun problem to dance around, and the result was people loved it. Then Drew and I got together again and crafted the concept for the second book; it was a lot more collaborative than the first.
The truest collaborative project I’ve done is A Child of Books. When Sam [Winston] and I first started, we didn’t know it would be a book. But we each liked the way the other thought, and our practices overlapped. We also share a belief that the power of stories is fundamental to the existence of culture and humanity. The book took five years. It was challenging technically and in other ways.
I also have a number of my own ideas to keep me busy. Right now I’m working on an artist monograph for Rizzoli. It’s a combined collection of my artwork from the last 10 to 15 years. I’m putting it together with my published work as well. I’d always tried to separate them before. I thought the existence of one body of work might confuse people seeing the other. But I’ve been getting past that mentality. This is the first time both worlds are coming together in a very public way: the picture books and the artworks. It’s a pretty extensive work.
Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel, Nov. 14 $19.99 ISBN 978-0-399-16789-8