Ex­plain­ing the world to my son – one room at a time

Oliver Jef­fers, au­thor of many of to­day’s most trea­sured chil­dren’s clas­sics, tells Paula Co­cozza how hav­ing his first child shed new light on the world – from saucepans and trees to lunch and shoes – giv­ing him a new sense of won­der

The Guardian - Family - - Front page -

When Oliver Jef­fers and his wife brought home their new­born son from hos­pi­tal, they paused at the door to their apart­ment in Brook­lyn, New York. The three of them stood on the thresh­old of fam­ily life. It was Jef­fers who broke the si­lence. “Here we are,” he said. “It’s sort of a North­ern Ir­ish thing to say when you ar­rive some­where or there’s a group of peo­ple and a mo­ment’s si­lence,” he says now. Nearly two years later, the words would be­come the ti­tle of his new book.

Here We Are is un­like any of Jef­fers’s pre­vi­ous books (16 as an in­ter­na­tion­ally best­selling writer and il­lus­tra­tor, more as il­lus­tra­tor alone). To be­gin with, it didn’t start life as a book at all.

Once through the door of their apart­ment, Jef­fers held Har­land and took him on a tour of his

new home. They moved from room to room, Jef­fers point­ing out a tree vis­i­ble through a win­dow, a shoe. “Just kind of go­ing, yeah, how lovely is it to ex­plain what a sau­cepan is for or why we eat lunch,” he says. Jef­fers was hit by “this grow­ing aware­ness that Har­land knew” – he drops his voice – “ab­so­lutely noth­ing”.

Over the com­ing days and weeks, Jef­fers kept up the tour, point­ing out more and more things. He started to write down his say­ings. The say­ings mounted. A let­ter to his son, he thought. Wouldn’t that be nice for him when he is older? The tour ex­tended to the neigh­bour­hood. Jef­fers would be wheel­ing the pushchair and find him­self say­ing things such as: “Peo­ple come in many shapes, sizes and colours … But don’t be fooled, we are all peo­ple!” He kept notes in his sketch­book or on his phone and added them to the length­en­ing let­ter. Then came the “eureka mo­ment … this should be a book”.

“Well, hello. Wel­come to this planet. We call it Earth,” be­gins Here We Are. (Jef­fers’s words about peo­ple com­ing in all va­ri­eties are also in­cluded.) Jef­fers has long been in­ter­ested in space, as a glance at the skyscapes in The Way Back Home sug­gests, and the book takes a tele­scopic view of the hu­man life­form, from the open­ing im­age of a fa­ther hold­ing a baby (“I sup­pose it’s me,” he says. “I just thought:

‘Oh – dad fig­ure!’”) to a wide-an­gle map of the so­lar sys­tem.

Af­ter be­com­ing a fa­ther, Jef­fers, 40, “im­me­di­ately went into this very weird state of macro and mi­cro at the same time. I was com­pletely fo­cused on this tiny ob­ject, but more aware of the vast­ness of ev­ery­thing.” He has the the­ory of du­al­ity tat­tooed on his in­ner fore­arm, which, he says, is “all about per­spec­tive … You de­fine some­thing by how you choose to look at it”. This in­stinct in­forms the book. It would have been im­pos­si­ble to write had he not be­come a fa­ther, he says. “The per­spec­tive changed an aw­ful, aw­ful lot.”

Here We Are has Jef­fers’s trade­mark warmth and hu­mour, but it is a work of non-fiction and you can sense its au­thor’s en­larg­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. It has se­ri­ous mes­sages to de­liver, too: we only have one Earth; body parts don’t grow back. Jef­fers’s project be­gan with him try­ing to ex­plain these tricky con­cepts to his son, but he wound up try­ing to ex­plain them to him­self – “and hope­fully putting out a re­minder to other peo­ple of how sim­ple the ba­sic prin­ci­ples of hu­man­ity could be”.

While the art­work is recog­nis­ably Jef­fers, the book di­verges from his usual style. The empty skies and seas that open up space in How to Catch a Star and Lost and Found are crowded here. The pages have the feel of a com­pen­dium. They are busy with life – maybe be­cause as a par­ent, as Jef­fers says: “Life feels busier, the world feels busier.” Per­haps it also feels more cor­po­real, less win­some, be­cause the hu­mans in Here We Are ap­pear to be a long way, in evo­lu­tion­ary terms, from the stick legs and lol­lipop heads of Jef­fers’s best known books. Here, they have chunky tor­sos and ath­letic legs. Their limbs make shad­ows on their cloth­ing. The an­i­mals are nat­u­ral­is­tic.

Maybe af­ter cre­at­ing a fresh life, it felt wrong to draw even imag­ined lives in the old way. Maybe the world just felt like a messier, richer, more three­d­i­men­sional space. Maybe watch­ing a real fig­ure de­velop over the weeks and months made the drawn fig­ures gain weight, too.

“It just felt nat­u­ral. I didn’t re­ally ques­tion it too much,” Jef­fers says. He isn’t overly given to anal­y­sis. “Peo­ple are in­ter­est­ing. Let’s make them look that way.” In fact, some of the fig­ures are so nat­u­ral­is­tic that one emo­tive spread, which points the young Har­land to­wards a queue of fig­ures to whom he can turn should his fa­ther not be around, is peo­pled with Jef­fers’s own fam­ily.

“My wife, her brother, her par­ents and my dad,” Jef­fers says. When he had fin­ished the art­work for those pages, he brought it home and showed it to Har­land. Jef­fers asked him: “Who’s that?” and Har­land re­sponded: “Granny! Gran­dad! Un­cle Rory!” Even the fam­ily dog curls up on the bed in this book, which of­fers a kind of ex­tended fam­ily por­trait, if you con­sider the Earth and ev­ery living thing on it to be fam­ily. Only the fa­ther and son main­tain the old naivety of Jef­fers’s fig­ures. A psy­cho­an­a­lyst would prob­a­bly have a field day, but Jef­fers says this is just the way he nor­mally draws. “Maybe I just couldn’t quite es­cape that.”

Jef­fers was born in Aus­tralia, but he and his wife grew up in Belfast, where a por­tion of their fam­i­lies still live. As a child, Jef­fers was more in­ter­ested in “play­ing in the streets and get­ting dirty and climb­ing trees and dig­ging holes” than books. But he al­ways loved to draw. While the fam­ily was watch­ing TV, “I was draw­ing pic­tures”, he says.

He was one of four broth­ers, but the house wasn’t noisy. His mother, who died 17 years ago, was bedrid­den with mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis. “I think that changed the tone of the house. Not in ways that you would ex­pect. There wasn’t a sad­ness or any­thing like that. But her room be­came the cen­tre, the hub. We didn’t shy away from that, but I think we in­tu­itively had a lit­tle more re­spect for the home setting.” He drew in the kitchen, out­side her room, al­ways show­ing her the draw­ings.

While Jef­fers and his fam­ily now live in New York, they keep a place in Belfast. To Har­land, they re­fer to these as “his Brook­lyn home and his Belfast home”. At two, he has a North­ern Ir­ish ac­cent. “But that’ll change once he goes to school,” Jef­fers says. “And we don’t want to be­come one of these Amer­i­cans in years to come who says” – he adopts an Amer­i­can ac­cent – “I’m from Ire­land.”

Jef­fers didn’t be­come an avid reader un­til he went to uni­ver­sity, but some­times he and his wife will no­tice that their apart­ment has gone very quiet and go in search of Har­land. He will of­ten be found in his room, “his nose in a book”.

He likes the ones by Jef­fers. On a re­cent visit to their Belfast rel­a­tives, Jef­fers came across an old copy of The Way Back Home. “It’s ac­tu­ally ded­i­cated to my wife. And I read it for the first time in six or seven years. To him. And I was like, ac­tu­ally, this is not bad. This is a good book!”

He has no idea if his wife has read any of his work. He once over­heard her talk­ing to some­one about The Day The Crayons Quit, around the time the book was cel­e­brat­ing its sec­ond an­niver­sary at the top of the New York Times best­seller chart. She must have been whis­per­ing, be­cause Jef­fers low­ers his voice to mimic her. “‘Two years! Well, I should prob­a­bly read it, then, shouldn’t I?’”

Har­land, mean­while, who is ex­pect­ing a sib­ling in the new year, has clearly got to grips with what his fa­ther does for a living. In spring, the fam­ily went to the Hay fes­ti­val, where they shared a cot­tage with Neil Gaiman and his wife, Amanda Palmer. “Why are all these other chil­dren look­ing at my daddy?” Har­land won­dered. “Af­ter that,” Jef­fers says: “He started look­ing at me and say­ing, ‘Oliver Jef­fers?’” For a long while, he ad­dressed his fa­ther as Oliver Jef­fers Daddy. “So I think he gets it,” Jef­fers says.

On all his books, Jef­fers’s au­thor pho­to­graph shows him as a child. In the past, he has de­scribed him­self as his “own tar­get au­di­ence”. But on Here We Are, the cover pho­to­graph shows Jef­fers hold­ing Har­land. In spirit, at least, they are co-au­thors. No won­der Jef­fers found it “sur­real” to read his lat­est ti­tle to Har­land for the first time. If he wrote all his other books think­ing of the child he was, he has writ­ten this one think­ing of the child he has.

Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jef­fers is pub­lished by HarperCollins (£14.99) on Tues­day. To or­der a copy for £12.74, go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

▲ Oliver Jef­fers with Har­land. Pho­to­graph and il­lus­tra­tion cour­tesy of Oliver Jef­fers

Il­lus­tra­tion from Here We Are by Oliver Jef­fers

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