'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.
“I wanted to establish all this diversity that I was using in my other practice as early as possible. So I asked them to take a gamble on the next book” – The Incredible Book Eating Boy – “to let me make it collage style. They reluctantly agreed on the understanding that I would then make the book they wanted me to make. Then, because that went so well, they gave me free rein to explore these other techniques.”
He sees all his art, whether for the gallery or picture books, as part of the same body of work. “The Incredible Book Eating Boy was made at the same time that I was making a project about quantum physics. There was this idea of a quest for ultimate intelligence that was at play in both of them. More recently I’d been painting on old paintings I found on the streets of New York, and that carried through to This Moose Belongs to Me.”
So that book began as a collaboration with obscure, long-dead landscape painters. “HarperCollins nearly had a heart attack, because they saw a potential lawsuit. So we tried to find the creators to get permission. One guy’s grandson looked after his estate and was totally game, and because we were having a more difficult time finding the owners of the other paintings he gave us some other paintings to use. It’s turned into a weird collaboration with this old American Czech guy who’s now dead.”
Jeffers likes collaborating. He worked closely with the people who made the film version of Lost and Found. The Heart and the Bottle was created to accompany a feature film that was never made. In his fine-art practice he regularly engages in collaborations, whether in art books shuttled from artist to artist by post or on a pair of “4D glasses” he recently created with a jewellery-designer friend. “We thought it was funny,” he says.
He loves New York, “where anything’s possible and things happen fast”. Having first gone there as a child, he has lived there for five years. “My dad sent me and my older brother to this summer camp in upstate New York when I was about 11. He was working with an exchange programme for disabled kids.
“The director read about the political struggle in the North and offered a scholarship to one Catholic kid and one Protestant kid . . . It was amazing. It was 1990, and things were really bad that year in Belfast. I went back again in 1996.”
He currently shares a studio with Max Premo, an artist he first met during those early trips. He also loves the picture-book genre and praises the works of Shel Silverstein, Quentin Blake and Tomi Ungerer.
“There’s something fantastic about this physical object that you can tell a story in. You can have control over the viewer by the speed at which you get them to turn the page or get them to linger on a double-page spread . . . Picture books fill holes. They calm people down. They excite people. Each one is different. They’re very, very important.”
He believes the art-world snobbery about mass-produced art is disappearing. “Fine art as we know it is a relatively new concept,” he says. “Go back 200 years and the people we consider to be the great fine artists of those times were considered to be little more than craftspeople. But the attitudes are changing and becoming more liberal and less defined by the boundaries . . . I made a decision a long time ago that I wasn’t going to hide behind a pseudonym [with his picture books].
“My work changes because I’m fascinated by the world around me, and as I question and explore that the means by which I make art changes too, because I’m a curious person.
“I always enjoyed drawing, but for me the big breakthrough was when I stopped trying to make my drawings look like someone else’s.”
Oliver Jeffers’s work is not like anyone else’s.
Picture this: The best of Jeffers
* How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, The Way Back Home and Up and Down
A quartet of magical stories about a boy who tries to possess a star, return a penguin, travel to the moon and teach his penguin to fly.
* This Moose Belongs to Me
A boy chases an obstinate moose called Marcel across a series of found landscape paintings.
* The Heart and the Bottle
A young girl loses an older relative and puts her heart in a bottle. Beautiful and sad.
The Incredible Book Eating Boy Jeffers uses painting and collage to tell the story of a youngster with a voracious appetite for literature.
* The Incredible Book Eating Boy is at the Mac, Belfast, until January 1st; themaclive.com; oliverjeffers.com