Oliver Jeffers – Picturebooks & Me

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult | Interviews

By Méabh McDonnell

Australian born, but brought up in Belfast, author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers’ has achieved international recognition for his funny and moving storylines, all told through a very special blend of pictures and words. His latest book This Moose Belongs to Me, now out with Harper Collins Children’s Books, and is a witty and thought-provoking story, exploring the concept of ownership: “Wilfred owned a moose. He hadn’t always owned a moose. The moose came to him a while ago and he knew, just KNEW, that it was meant to be his. He thought he would call him Marcel.” Most of the time Marcel is very obedient, abiding by the many rules on How to Be a Good Pet. But one dark day, while deep in the woods, someone else claims the moose as their own…Is Marcel really Wilfred’s pet after all?

Oliver’s stories have reached children and adults all over the world, the unique humour capturing an international audience. At a recent event with Laureate Na Og, Niamh Sharkey, Oliver gave a rare insight into the humour and creativity he puts into his work. He also taught the assembled crowd just how to draw an original ‘Oliver Jeffers’ flying thing’.

Oliver has a natural and relaxed deadpan humour, and is easy to see how the wit and lyricism in each of his books comes completely from his own personality. Having made a recent move to the Big Apple, Oliver told me that began his career in art with his degree in Visual Communications from the Univeristy of Belfast, although he laughed that, with this degree “I was going for the safe option, to get a ‘real job’ but I’ve never had one since”.

His interest in art began when he was in school, however he jokingly pointed out that he was never the best in his class at art “in fact I was the third best”, he laughed. “I was always much more interested in being outside and playing on the street than reading when I was young.” But art remained a passion of his until he left school and went onto study art in college – even then his distinctive style was apparent.

How to Catch a Star, Oliver’s first picturebook began its life as “a series of pictures” which then elevated to a large series of artworks. Eventually he realised that the story he was telling was a picture book. “I put together all of the artwork. I printed one full copy of the novel and then put together 100 small samples with 10 of the prints from the book.”

Luckily for his readers, Oliver had luck on his side when he submitted his book to various publishers. “It just happed with me that my book landed on the right person’s desk at the right time, I remember when I sent it off I expected to have to wait for weeks, calling them repeatedly to ask if they had it, if they had read it. But, as it turned out, I got a call the next day from HarperCollins asking me to come and meet them”.

He laughed as he recalled the first encounter he had with his publisher “They asked me if I had any more books up my sleeve- I just smiled and nodded, ‘yes I do’, even though I had no such thing”. Oliver’s books went from strength to strength following the release of How to Catch a Star which was short listed for the Booktrust Early Years Award for Best New Illustrator, and in 2005, won a Merit Award at the CBI/Bisto Book of Year Awards. It’s breathtakingly beautiful follow-up, Lost and Found, was published to huge critical acclaim and went on to win the Gold Award at Nestle Children’s Book Prize in 2005. The Incredible Book Eating Boy is being developed into a major motion picture by Universal Studios. His most recent story is This Moose Belongs to Me. The curiosity, adventure and moral philosophy of young children are recurring themes in Oliver’s books – his combination of humour and pathos, a rare talent, “I’m just trying to satisfy my own sense of curiosity and humour, I suppose, I’ve a very particular style of humour”. he smiles “I write and create the books that I want to read”. The humour that fills his books is renowned for its deadpan hilarity that entertains both adults and children alike.

For Oliver, an idea can start anywhere, from a rough drawing on a forgotten receipt or from a piece paper. I asked Oliver about the inspiration for his books. he explained, “My ideas come from anything that I see, walking down the street, if I see something, I’ll get an idea that takes me somewhere. There is a moose in The Great Paper Caper and my favourite thing to draw whenever I was signing was the moose, and then the idea just came together from three separate ideas in my sketch book.”

The paintings which form the background for This Moose belongs to Me were all ‘found’ materials. Oliver explained, “I’m based in New York now, and you wouldn’t believe the things that people throw out. I found them all in bins and the back of alleys, it took us ages to find the original artists for some of them”. This Moose belongs to Me isn’t Oliver’s first outing using found materials as a backdrop to his illustrations, having used them to great effect in The Incredible Book Eating Boy, but he told me, “For me the concept comes first, and the execution comes later”. Like most artists, he is very particular about to his working environment, whether he is creating picturebooks or individual pieces of artwork.“Everything has to be just right for me to work, I have to have a completely clean working space.” In addition to experimenting by pushing the creative boundaries of picture books, Oliver’s eye-catching style of artwork has taken him in many directions, including poster illustration, painting ten commissioned artworks for a London bar and designing album covers. He paints in an impressive range of styles and sizes with a wide variety of media.

According to Oliver, we’re living in what could be called a ‘golden age’ of picture books, compared to where book illustration and picture books were 20 years ago, but story is as essential as illustration. He told me, “I’ve always done what I do, when I write books it has to pass my own sense of judgement. It has to have a beginning, middle and end”. The stories that come together without over thinking them too much are the best for him, “In a lot of ways the story just tells itself, if you ask how come no one has ever told this story before, those are the ones that feel really right then the story almost tells itself.”

About the author

(c) Méabh McDonnell October 2012

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