Why Oliver Jeffers wrote a new picture book for his son, and why he doesn’t talk down to children.
When the Apollo mission crew took that famous photograph of the earth in its entirety, the planet was dubbed the “Blue Marble”. The earth, as NASA puts it, was “revealed as both a vast planet home to billions of creatures and a beautiful orb capable of fitting into the pocket of the universe.”
Now, decades later, once again we get that sense of preciousness, the sheer weight and the worth of this blue marble, while reading Oliver Jeffers’s latest picture book, Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (HarperCollins).
Jeffers, over a phone call, says that he started writing and drawing Here We Are for his son. In his dedication, he writes, “To my son, Harland. This book was written in the first two months of your life as I tried to make sense of it all for you. These are the things I think you need to know.” The back of the book says it all — an arrow points at the earth and it says “All the people live here”, and then it points at another planet, “No one lives here (yet).” It suddenly hits you — this is it, our one home. By the end of the book, all you want to do is cradle the book (and the planet) and whisper a thank you.
“It’s one of those ideas that kind of hits you over the head like a hammer when it occurs to you,” Jeffers says. “I didn’t start off thinking that, ‘Oh, I have got a book idea to write a guide for my son, let me see what will be in there.’ I was slowly explaining things to him as he walked around, and I was putting out things that he had never seen before … and I was sort of writing and drawing and putting together almost a metaphor for him. It occurred to me that it’s the premise of a picture book. It occurred to me that a brand-new life is a completely blank slate where he was my responsibility as a parent.”
Jeffers explores this “bewildering place” for newborns and the weary of heart with the help of little notes. He begins with a hand-lettered “Well, Hello and Welcome to this planet. We call it Earth.” The journey he takes the readers on is a spectacular one. We travel to land, sky and sea, to cold and hot places, to pointy, bumpy, and flat lands; and are reminded that we share it with others. Each page is more exquisite than the other — purple-pink mountains iced with snow; the velvety depths of the sea, complete with translucent jellyfish, pop-coloured octopus, and shipwrecks; a star-studded quilt of sky turning from day to night. A spectacular tribute to the planet. From there on, we meet a diverse pool of people and animals (one quibble, it’s not the best representation of India with rajas and yogis). But Jeffers underscores that we are all individuals and that “every beating heart is a human being.”
Here We Are is a searing reminder about the most important things on earth. The fact that we may be different, but we are all people. That just because animals don’t speak our language “that’s not reason not to be nice to them”. Most importantly, time is finite and you need to use your time on earth well.
The book is quintessential Jeffers. It’s funny, heart-rending, and very real. There’s something for parents as well, who will smile as they explore the book alongside their children at bedtime. But then, most of his books offer that shared joy of reading experience — whether it’s The Incredible Book Eating Boy (2006), a story that celebrates books, or the extremely imaginative Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (2014), which explores the letters through themes of fear, sadness, friendship, and the likes.
The latter, said Jeffers, emerged when he was going through his sketchbook. “Some of them were stories. Short stories,” he said. What was missing was a structure. So, he went back and “squeezed them into a letter”. His books are true to the picture book format, distilling an idea down to its most economic form. A writer, artist and illustrator, Jeffers, as he puts it, “makes art and tells stories”. “I try to show something rather than say it,” he says — evident in The Heart and the Bottle, which tells the story of grief and loss with very few words and poignant illustrations.
His debut book, How to Catch a Star (2004), is about a boy who loves stars and decides to catch his own. “I was sitting on the edge of a water pier. And I could have sworn that I could reach this tiny, shimmering object. It was the reflection of a star. It was a funny moment. As a kid, I was perhaps naïve that it was within reach,” he says.
Jeffers has always loved picture books — Eric Carle, Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake — and also collects them. “They are lovely examples of design,” says the 40-year-old. “They are powerful in a very simple way.” Like many other authors and illustrators, Jeffers doesn’t make a distinction between his audience — to him these are picture books, not children or adult books. “I don’t call them children’s books,” he says. “I don’t try to talk down to children or assume what they want to hear. I tell stories that I want to tell. And, luckily, they seem to share my sense of humour.”
Coincidentally, Here We Are releases in the same month that the climate change discussions in Bonn were held. “It’s a pressing issue facing us,” says Jeffers on the global phenomenon. “Just look around us — hurricanes, floods. Of course, climate change is real. ”
Those who follow Jeffers on social media — he is very active on Instagram — know that he often highlights social and political issues on his feed. “Global politics is taking strange turns. Humanity is moving in a dark direction,” says Jeffers, talking about the vitriol that we often see on social media. “We are at a crossroads. We are fully connected, even parts that are very rural and remote. It’s suddenly a global network. And these [social media] are the ways in which people communicate. I am worried that people aren’t looking at the larger picture. It will be a dangerous thing,” he says.
But he is optimistic. “As things are changing, we are learning, almost as fast as the things are changing. I hope it is the dawn of an age of a new enlightenment, one which is more liberal, socially conscious and aware. And we can override this trend of selfishness,” he says. Kindness is the sentiment that echoes throughout Here We Are. As Jeffers writes, “It looks big, Earth. But there are lots of us on here (7,327,450,667 and counting) so be kind. There is enough for everyone”.