'Picture books fill holes. They calm people down'
At the Bord Gáis Irish Book Awards last week a steady stream of supplicants walked past famous novelists in order to bend the knee to the junior Children’s Book of the Year award winner, Oliver Jeffers. “My children love your books,” they said. What they really meant was, I think, “I love your books.”
It is okay, as a grown-up, to love Jeffers’s books, although children really do love them. His beautiful stories, which he illustrates with paintings and collages, are awash with poetic truths and absurdities. One of them, The Heart and the Bottle, a story about grief, made me cry when I first read it, on a cold winter night in 2010.
“I call them picture books,” he says. “I don’t call them children’s books. I don’t think the best are being made by people thinking, This is what a kid wants to read. They’re just writing books for themselves. I’m finding as many adults coming on their own to my signings as parents with kids.”
Growing up in Belfast, Jeffers always drew pictures. His father was a teacher and his mother was a nurse. They must have done something to encourage artistic ambitions, as two of his brothers are also designers, but Jeffers says, “My father threw all my early drawings out. He’s not the sentimental type.”
He never planned a publishing career. “This is all a big experiment,” he says. Coming out of the University of Ulster with a degree in visual communication, he was an aspiring gallery artist. “I didn’t want a real job.”
His first book, How to Catch a Star, was originally destined to be several single static canvases “exploring how to physically catch something that was intangible and impossible. There was something about the way that with a paintbrush and a pen you could make impossible things possible . . . Once I had figured out that there was a lot of potential to continue exploring the idea, it occurred to me that a better platform to tell the story would be a picture book rather than a series of static images.”
He has never stopped producing gallery work. Indeed, he has brought a little bit of its freewheeling experimentation into the publishing world.
“After How to Catch a Star HarperCollins was keen for me to do the same thing again, because it was obviously working, so I did Lost and Found. By the time the third book came out they wanted just another repeat of Lost and Found . . . and I knew at that point that if I did that book I would be typecast.