Bookbug Author Spotlight: Oliver Jeffers
Bookbug's Author Spotlight gives you the chance to learn more about the work of authors, illustrators, and publishers connected to the Bookbug programme. This month, bestselling author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about the world of picture books, and in particular Lost and Found, which is currently included in our Bookbug Pirate Bag.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Lost and Found?
It's based on a true story, actually. There’s a well-known story that does the rounds of Belfast about a school tour that went to the zoo and one of the kids broke away from the group, supposedly climbed into the penguin enclosure, captured a baby penguin and climbed out again and kept the baby penguin under his jacket. He got the whole way home before anybody realised what had happened. They had to keep the penguin in the bathtub overnight until the lad from the zoo could come the next day to get it! I was drawing sketches in my sketchbook about the boy and was very curious as to how the conversation happened that night and what this boy and this penguin got up to. I started making some drawings and the story was just pulled out from there.
Do you have any tips for how Bookbug parents can share Lost and Found with little ones?
Some books with shorter words can intimidate some parents, but I think that it's great [having fewer words so you can improvise] and go way off topic and talk about what you want. It’s mostly just about having fun and enjoying a moment with your kid.
[With picture books parents] can talk about what they want. It’s mostly just about having fun and enjoying a moment with your kid.
What stories did you enjoy reading when you were little?
Roald Dahl for straight down reading; he was the first person who captured my imagination. Some picture books that really stand out for me as moments in my visual development: David McKee, Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle, and Anthony Browne were a big influence on me.
Is there a picture book you wish you'd written or illustrated?
Hmm, that's a tricky one. Is there? Probably. The Enormous Crocodile (pictured) by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake and actually Clown by Quentin Blake. I saw that when I was old enough to know what jealousy was! The wordless picture book of that was just really incredible. And more recently there's a fantastic book called The Enemy by Serge Bloch (and Davide Cali) which is a picture book about war and it’s just straight-up brilliant.
Is there one of you books that you're most proud of?
I couldn't possibly pick a favourite – that wouldn't be fair to all the other books!
How do you test out your picture books for a young audience?
I don't really. Quite selfishly the books are for me so I only worry about how I feel about them. I'll run them past some friends to see if I've gone too far down a rabbit hole with something or if I'm leaving other people behind because they still have to be accessible to other people - but as far as testing books, I don't necessarily think about the kind of stories kids want to hear and aim to write books like that; it's much more about entertaining myself.
Do you have any favourite books to read to your baby son? (Oliver became a father for the first time in the summer)
The convenient thing about doing what I do is that I know some people in publishing! Publishers have sent me piles of their classic books which is great, actually, because there are a few that have totally missed me, some that I was aware of but had never actually read – like Goodnight Moon and Goodnight Gorilla, which he really seems to like. And I'm going to dob my mother-in-law in here – she bought him her favourite book by her favourite author and it’s Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson. My wife said to her ‘are you sure it's your favourite author?!’ And she said, ‘oh yes!' He really likes that one when I read it to him.
Could you tell us a bit about how the Imaginary Fred collaboration (with Eoin Colfer, Irish Children's Laureate) came about?
We met at a writers festival in New Zealand with some other Irish authors for a drink and we just decided there and then that we should do something together. It was really straightforward after that - Eoin had an idea, he sent it to me a couple of weeks later and I could see immediately how I would bring it to life. We spent a bit more time getting it ready and then we showed it to some publishers and very happily Harper Collins were interested. The rest just unfolded quite naturally.
Would you consider another collaboration in the future?
Yes, definitely. We’ve already said that the story of Fred (pictured) is so nicely wrapped up that he will be left where he is, but we are definitely both into the idea of working together again if we can find the right project.
Do picture books work as a format for handling more difficult subjects for older children?
It probably does, but my feeling on all of these things is that if the motivation for making a book is to thinly veil a way to impart a life lesson or moral it will always be taken as that. All of my books are just genuinely about storytelling and inevitably some kind of value or message comes through in that, it's just integrated with good classic storytelling. To set out to write a book about a particular difficult issue or thing will be seen for that and children are a lot smarter than adults sometimes give them credit for.
Do you read picture books for pleasure?
Yes, there's a reason I try to call them picture books as much as possible rather than children’s books. I'm finding more and more often at events and signings that adults are coming along without children and are no longer feeling the need to say ‘Oh I don't have a child here’ or need an excuse - they don't need an excuse.
What was your favourite thing about your local library when you were growing up?
It's sad to see libraries in such decline - they're so accessible, and regardless of means or income or geography, it puts books in the hands of people who might not otherwise have had them so seeing them in decline is sad. I have very fond memories of being deposited in the children's section as my dad would go to the crime section for a while. So yes, use your library if you can.
The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers appears on our special Book Week Scotland book list about Journeys. Find out more about Oliver's other picture books, artwork, and illustration at oliverjeffers.com.
Learn more about Imaginary Fred and Oliver's collaboration with Eoin Colfer in this author spotlight.