Inter-planetary craft

Oliver Jeffers’ sculptures gave his son a glimpse of humanity’s role in the universe and his book is an information pack for his daughter. But his work provokes an emotional response from adults too

Hero image

In winter last year, on the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, Oliver Jeffers sported his signature beanie and took up his paint brush to make the final touches to his latest work – a sculpture of the Moon and, almost 200ft away, the Earth, in New York City’s High Line Park. Then he and his young son Harland put on space helmets and, almost like Apollo 11 a half-century earlier, left the Earth sculpture and headed for the Moon.

“Everybody’s been trained to think about themselves rather than a greater community.”

It was not the first time his son had influenced his art. The children’s author and illustrator’s 2017 book, Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, started life as exactly that – a collection of notes about the world and how it works, made in the first two months of Harland’s life.

“I didn’t intend to write Harland the book. It’s just that I was grappling with these early thoughts of what it is to be a parent, and the magnitude and the comedy that come with it, and I started explaining the world as it was for him.

“It was initially intended as a letter to him but just the weirdness of trying to explain the simplicity and complication of how everything works, and then watching the way that the world was unfolding, I thought that maybe other people might benefit from or enjoy reading it too.”

They did, unsurprisingly since Jeffers had already captured the hearts and imaginations of children, parents and teachers across the world, with his thought-provoking tales and touching childlike illustrations in books like How To Catch A Star, The Way Back Home and Stuck. What is it about his books that appeal across the generations and almost always guarantee an emotional response in the older ones?

“I don’t quite know and I don’t know if I ever quite want to know,” Jeffers laughs. “I’ve always been sort of worried that if you pick something apart to see how it works you can’t really ever put it back together again.

“If I had to guess, it’s because I don’t make books that I think kids are going to enjoy – I write books that I think I’ll enjoy and that allows anybody at any age to access them.”

But Here We Are possessed a special kind of magic, conjured from somewhere between the heartfelt address to his own son and the underlying concerns of the book, which over the past few years have left adults searching for answers as much as children. Themes of fairness and equality in an increasingly divisive world and, inevitably, climate change propelled the book to the New York Times Bestseller list and helped it scoop up Time’s Best Book of the Year for 2017. This year it was adapted into a short film for Apple TV, with Meryl Streep narrating.

In 2020, the concerns of Here We Are are still pertinent, but dwarfed by the immediate concern of a global pandemic. As we question how we will rebuild after our lives have been reshaped by the coronavirus, Jeffers has recaptured the magic of his last book in What We’ll Build: Plans for our Future Together, a companion piece, this time written for his daughter, Mari.

“I didn’t purposely set out to write something for her,” Jeffers explains. “I joke that I knew that if I didn’t write her a book I’d get in trouble for it one day, but it definitely wasn’t a case of sitting down and thinking: Okay, well, what can I make for her?

“It was a similar set of circumstances to the first where I was having an internal dialogue with myself, just about the strangeness of a life yet unlived and all that she was when she was born.”

Having gone through what he calls the paradigm shift of becoming a first-time parent, the second time round he was more mentally nimble to think about the future they would share together.

“I just started writing these thoughts down, as late at night when you’re up trying to calm her back to sleep, your mind wanders, and I started almost writing a little poem and then that turned into something else.”

Jeffers doesn’t know if having children will mark a permanent shift in his approach to making children’s books. Since they were born he’s not sat down to write a story in the traditional sense.

“Here We Are is not really a story – it’s more of an information book, a strange one – but there’s no way that I could make that book again in a different way. And even with What We’ll Build, it’s not really a story, it’s more of a poem – it’s structural rather than narrative. So I don’t think that I could make that kind of a book again either.”

Above: The Earth, The Moon and Us, courtesy of OliverJeffers. Main photo by Caroline Tompkins

But certainly, having children has added a new dimension to his work – a greater immersion in the themes he’s been exploring for more than 15 years in publishing.

“I think the reason that space was present in so much of my early work was almost just the poeticism of it, of just the aesthetic of that night sky,” says Jeffers. “But more recently it’s become much more involved than that and it’s about the notion of the overview effect – of man’s first adventures into space, and looking back on the Earth and contemplating the singularity of this planet.”

By launching from Earth with Harland in High Line Park last year, Jeffers was able to give his son a sense of that, and while borders aren’t visible from space, his Earth sculpture had every single land border drawn in. On the cold and lonely Moon he wrote “No one lives here”, while in place of country names on the Earth’s carved-up land he wrote “People Live Here” over and over again.

“I have recently started thinking about the problems humanity faces, which are highlighted by lines – both the imaginary lines across land borders but also the egotism with which man thinks that humanity is separate from environment, when in reality we are very much a part of it. Even the lines of constellations, which from our perspective explain our position in the universe, only ever make sense from the perspective of Earth.”

The change in perspective that comes from getting outside of where we’re from is something he experienced on moving from his native Belfast to New York.

“Looking back at Northern Ireland’s problems from the distance of across an ocean I realised that once we were outside of Belfast, of the six counties of Northern Ireland, that very few people knew or even cared about the political turbulence and the turmoil in the history that we faced. There’s a certain degree of tragedy about that but it’s also the same emotion that astronauts speak of when they say they wish they could drag politicians up in their spaceships to look back at Earth and just point out the futility of all of it.”

He’s back in Belfast for the time being, having been forced to retreat back from a planned yearlong adventure in which life really was imitating art. Jeffers and his family were globetrotting across borders with the now unfathomable ease of global citizens when Covid hit. In reality, up to that point, it wasn’t without its challenges with two small children in tow.

“It was a lot more enlightening and enjoyable in unexpected places than I thought and more work than I anticipated,” he laughs. “Absolutely everything we had with us we decided had to be able to be carried at least through a train station. We got down to just three suitcases, which we were quite proud of, but then of course our daughter was so young that there was a cot, a car seat and the pram. It was a stretch.”

Jeffers, his wife Suzanne, Harland and Mari did manage to travel Europe extensively and had passed through the Middle East before Covid stopped them in their tracks in Japan. Despite being able to go nowhere since arriving home, he says that travelling at least meant the kids were used to being in the company of just their family. But for Jeffers, now in between homes and studios, lockdown has been “tough and frustrating”.

The view of America from Belfast, he says, is a grim one. Trump, he says, will almost certainly be re-elected next month.

“There’s just a combination of too many selfish, too many easily fooled and too many outwardly racist people, combined with the lengths to which voter suppression will occur like we’ve never seen before in modern western politics,” he says matter-of-factly. Meanwhile, the feeling that no one cares about Northern Ireland has only been intensified by returning home at a time when the UK government is endangering the Northern Irish peace process with its controversial Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

“It’s been quite obvious that Northern Ireland has been sold down the river for a promise to the mainland,” he says, pointing to a piece of art he made about it in 2018. My Northern Irish Passport is an image of the British passport with the words doctored to read: “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and… eh… is there supposed to be another bit?”

He says: “Most people in Britain unfortunately aren’t even really aware that Northern Ireland is actually part of Great Britain… It’s so obvious that when people voted for Brexit almost nobody considered the impact it would have on the Northern Irish peace process.”

But Jeffers believes that if Brexit does lead to Northern Ireland separating from the rest of the UK then a united Ireland becomes much more likely.

“This angers a lot of loyalists here, who have always said we have to be treated exactly the same as the rest of the UK and now they’re being shown that they’re not. By placing a border in the Irish Sea Britain is effectively saying that Northern Ireland is culturally Irish.”

Beyond making books for children Jeffers has exhibited his fine art extensively. His 2019 New York exhibition For All We Know was based on the cosmological themes that have preoccupied him in recent years, while his London show Observations on Modern Life addressed “xenophobia, immigration, racism and sexism and that sort of cultural division in Trump’s America, Brexit Britain and everything in between”. Its commentary was a lot more immediate than his work for children, which he says was refreshing.

“I’ve always straddled both worlds and I might possibly be frustrated if my only outlet was books, but I might also be frustrated in the art world if I didn’t have the work I do in picture books, which is an opportunity to be direct and sincere.”

It’s an approach he would advise to parents hoping to distill big topics into easily understandable terms – something his books execute so powerfully.

“It’s up to the parents to educate themselves about what’s actually happening, as opposed to just how they feel about it. And then I think it’s to speak as honestly as possible. You can spare the grim details, but if you can explain it to somebody who’s never been here before, you’re probably halfway there.”

The responsibility of raising fair-minded children is one Jeffers obviously takes seriously. The idea that the next generation will be the change makers however, is one he calls lazy.

“That’s like kicking the can down the road – like, we can’t do anything about it – and I think frankly that’s bullshit. There’s plenty we can do about it right now and one is leading by example… In fact what we’re seeing [in young people] is a lot of radicalisation and people giving voice, power and validation almost to selfish, racist behaviour.”

And though he’s disappointed it’s not happening with the urgency we had the promise of at the start of the pandemic, he is still hopeful that we may emerge from it into a fairer world. The isolation we’ve all had to endure is perhaps an embodiment of the isolationism Jeffers says is at play in America and Britain, but it’s also given rise to an outpouring of support within communities.

“There’s a sense of embitterment and anger that people’s lives are not going as perfectly as they believed they should and so there’s lashing out – this is somebody else’s fault. Often that is true, but I think everybody’s been trained to think about themselves rather than their partner or a greater community, a greater environment.

“It leaves a lot of people feeling very empty, imperfect and isolated and, of course, none of that is really true.”

And this is Jeffers’ perennial theme – whether explored through a friendship between a boy and an alien, the relationship between a father and daughter, or a newborn baby and the planet he will learn to call home: people live here, so you’re never alone on Earth.

What We’ll Build is out this week, published by Harper Collins Children’s Books  

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Inter-planetary craft

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.