I don’t call them kids’ books,” explains Oliver Jeffers, “I call them picture books because I don’t think they’re just for kids; they’re for anyone who wants to look at them.” Since his first book, How to Catch a Star, debuted to critical acclaim in 2004, Jeffers has created over a dozen more—and for each one, he says, “my target audience when I’m making them is me.”
Recently, I caught up with Jeffers in his Cobble Hill studio, which is located within an interdisciplinary art center. Since the building has evaded the polish of gentrification, it still comes with an old, industrial elevator (roughly the size of my bedroom), creaking floorboards, winding hallways, and dusty nooks. I look up in the elevator and see thick letters in white calligraphy—text from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno—covering the walls all the way to the third floor.
Inside Jeffers’ studio, however, it’s dust-free, neat, and filled with light. There are ultra-tiny to large boxes lining the walls and tucked under the workbenches. Mugs and glasses filled with pencils, brushes, markers, and ink bottles stand at the ready. A painting from Jeffers’s Dipped Paintings series hangs on one wall, a chalkboard the size of a hefty standing mirror hangs on another, and a small dog runs around the space trying to get human attention.
Jeffers has lived and worked in Brooklyn for almost nine years, after moving here from Belfast with his wife Suzanne (who works as his business manager). While he grew up in and credits Ireland with his instinct for storytelling, Jeffers says of New York: “I love the speed at which things happen here.”
In addition to his picture books, which have been translated into over 30 languages, Jeffers’s projects have included figurative paintings, installations, and commercial illustrations that have been exhibited around the globe. “My picture books are about storytelling, and my art is generally about question-asking, though they are both about my trying to make sense of the world around me,” he says.
The book that started it all, How to Catch a Star, “happened almost by accident,” beginning as a series of composition sketches that Jeffers then put into a sequence. “A lot of my early art was mixing words and pictures and seeing how they would change each other, and I was doing that for a long time until it occurred to me one day that what I was doing was the meat-and-bones of picture books,” he says.
Jeffers worked on this first book for almost three years before it was ready to be sent out into the publishing world—and, to his surprise, both Harper Collins UK and Penguin US called him immediately after receiving a copy of it. “I’ve known for a very long time that I wanted to draw pictures for a living,” says Jeffers. “The thought of having a proper job never even crossed my mind, and I was never pressured into thinking about getting one by my parents.”
Now, eleven years later, he can make a picture book in anywhere between to 8-24 months, depending on the book. Each one still starts out as ideas jotted down in a sketchbook—”The first part is making all the drawings I can think of to try to figure out the story,” says Jeffers—before it goes through thumbnails, color tests, line art, and layouts.
The final artwork, which takes from one-two months to complete, is made using everything from watercolors, acrylics, and oils, to collage, colored pencils, and even digital software. “The way I make it will be whatever is the best way to make the idea as strong as possible,” he explains.
As a result, the pages of his picture books are colorful and full of details (i.e., a little boy with a bow tie and suspenders, a blue whale with throat pleats, waves foaming just right), but paradoxically minimalist at the same time (broad faces with pinpoints for eyes, bears with stick-like legs, open fields, unperturbed sands, vast skies).
Playing with space and details in this way, it seems, allows Jeffers to delicately explore complex themes of friendship, adventure, loss, and imagination (but never politics or religion, he tells me).
“Kids books can seem forced or condescending whenever people try to think about what moral or lesson they’re trying to impart, whereas I don’t have any of that,” says Jeffers, “I just try to be entertaining, and if a moral or a good value comes of it, then that’s an added bonus, rather than a point.”
These days, Jeffers balances a demanding production schedule: He creates one or two picture books a year; starts and finishes a collection of paintings; and takes on side-projects that he thinks are interesting (like directing and producing the music video for U2’s “Ordinary Love” with MacPremo). Recently, he also became a father.
“I’m really lucky that I get to do what I love for a living,” he says. “I feel a sense of responsibility to enjoy that as much as I can.” We discuss the birth of his son, and if his now-expanded family will have an effect on his creative process. Will he still aim to write his picture books for himself or will his audience now become his son?
Jeffers thinks the question over and concedes that he might make some changes, but he’s not sure yet. One thing he’s already doing is scaling back his commitments—after his upcoming book is published this fall (Imaginary Fred via HarperCollins Children’s Books) and his show opens in London in November (“Measuring Land and Sea” at Lazarides Art), he’s going to enjoy the pause in his workflow to be with his son. At this point, he’s earned it.
But for those just starting out in his profession, Jeffers offers: “Work hard and be okay with hearing ‘No’ as an answer; be honest with yourself about your ability. If you really believe you are good enough, then you shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks about your work. If it really is good enough, it will be seen for what it is.”
Below, we asked Jeffers some questions:
What is your earliest memory?
Many of my memories from early childhood have morphed together and I can’t be sure of their timelines. The first memory I can put to a date is my the day my brother Peter came home from the hospital. I was just shy of four years old and thinking here’s my future competition, so I started plotting my revenge in advance.
If you could relive your childhood years during any decade, which decade would you choose? Why?
Probably the Cretaceous period, or 85 million years BCE. What wee lad doesn’t want to live with dinosaurs?
When do you think a child becomes an adult (outside of the law selecting a legal age)?
The first time they lose their wallet.
What was the best present that you ever got as a child?
At the age of eleven I got a scholarship to go all the way from Belfast to Camp Dudley in Westport, New York. It was at Dudley that I met many current close friends, Mac Premo among them. My experiences there really changed the course of my life, and I probably would not be working as an artist in Brooklyn today if it weren’t for the two summers there as a camper.
Did you have an invisible friend growing up?
Simply put, no. With three brothers I never had a need. If anything, I had the opposite of an imaginary friend, in that I imagined that there was no one around to bother me.