The Father’s Day Profile: Oliver Jeffers
Bedtime has become much better since Oliver Jeffers published How To Catch A Star in 2004. Since his first children’s book, the Brooklyn-based artist, author and father of two has created numerous other whimsical tales including The Incredible Book Eating Boy and Stuck, in which a boy named Floyd keeps throwing larger and larger items into a tree. In Oliver’s spare time, he co-directed the music video for U2’s "Ordinary Love." (Bono’s wife is a Jeffers’ fan.) To celebrate Maisonette’s First Birthday, he’ll be painting a mural in Brooklyn Bridge Park based on his latest book, Here We Are. The mural will be on display from June 20 to July 2, so please stop by.
How has becoming a father to Harland (3 ½) and Mari (4 ½ months) affected your work?
I began work on Here We Are right when Harland was born. The idea was to give him a tour of everything I knew from very big things like the universe to very small things like fingernails. It started out as a letter and then things started taking politically weird turns in the world and it occurred to me that other people might benefit from hearing some of these things--having a reminder about the basic principles of humanity.
As someone who reads to audiences composed of children, what’s some advice for us non-pros when we’re reading bedtime stories?
Two things: Be willing to go off-script and be willing to make a fool of yourself. You need to have a total lack of self-awareness. If you become coy or shy or embarrassed about it, then it is over. I tend to approach a reading more as a performance.
What were some of your favorite books as a boy?
I wasn’t a big book person growing up but a few that stick out in my memory are The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle. . .The Moomins, anything by Roald Dahl. . . Asterix comics when I was a little older. I would copy the drawings in them an awful lot. Not everybody is into books right from the beginning. That’s important for parents to remember.
How do your ideas go from the smallest kernel of an idea to a book? Did you actually see a kite stuck in a tree one day and it became Stuck?
Yes! I joke with people that Stuck is a true story and then I started exaggerating.
So you actually threw an orangutan into a tree?
Not exactly. My wife, Suzanne, and I were on vacation in Rhode Island and there was a kite that looked like an expensive thing. It clearly belonged to the house that we were renting so I thought we should get it out of the tree. I started out by throwing two flip-flops and then a ball. Finally, I threw a chair at the tree but it didn’t get stuck: It smashed the windscreen of the car we were in. That’s when I gave up. That idea is one I sat on for a long time because I couldn’t figure out the ending. Usually, I have an idea and it goes into a sketchbook. And once I have an idea that feels like a book, I start working backward from an endpoint.
How did your childhood in Belfast influence your artistic sensibility?
My mum and my dad both encouraged the curiosity and the humor that are very much a part of my work. And I think there’s a sense of duality in my work too. That comes from growing up in a city that has Catholics and Protestants with two very different perspectives living in it and these perspectives need to be juggled simultaneously.
What are some things that are different (or similar to) how you were raised versus how you’re raising your children?
New York in 2018 is very different from Belfast in the late 70s and early 80s. But hopefully not too much. I remember when we were going to have our first child, I said to my father, “Lay it on me: you raised four very well-adjusted men in a politically turbulent decade. So what’s the secret? How did you do it?” He told me, “It was consistency.” Life can be a fairly turbulent thing so he tried to be a calm port. And that’s how I’m trying to raise our children.