In the universe according to Oliver Jeffers, little boys are one part adventure, two parts resourcefulness and all heart. They find the fantastic awaiting them at their doorstep, or in their cupboards, and step right up to seize it. They overcome fear and loneliness with élan, ford choppy seas and scale mountains to help a friend, and still find time to catch their favourite TV shows. And they also learn – and teach us – some remarkable lessons about companionship, patience and the art of being human.
‘Once there was a boy’, begin three of Jeffers’ best known books, chronicling the astonishing and heartwarming adventures of a nameless little boy and some truly surprising companions. Each of these books – ‘How to Catch a Star’, ‘Lost and Found’ and ‘The Way Back Home’ is, at its heart, about the same theme – the power of true friendship. Each book has our diminutive hero set out on a journey that ends with him discovering both a new friend, and something special about himself. ‘How to Catch a Star’, the book that marked Jeffers’ debut in 2004, follows the boy’s quest to do just that – catch himself a star he can play with and talk to. He spends the entire book in wild and fruitless pursuit, before realizing that good things do in fact, come to those who sit back and wait. ‘’The Way Back Home’ has the boy set out on a cruise into outer space before engine trouble leaves him stranded on the moon. But he isn’t alone – a little alien just like himself lands there too and what follows is an engaging and ‘awww’ – inducing story about overcoming differences and helping each other. And ‘Lost and Found’ has our little hero rowing all the way to the South Pole to get a lost penguin back home, only to realize that home might, after all, be where the heart is.
This is a universe Jeffers draws with breath taking beauty – spare , child like drawings rendered in amazingly rich colour. The text is much the same – a mere handful of words that seem determined to play sidekick to the drawings, though still conveying the author’s gentle humour. The first time I picked up a Jeffers book, I was struck by how solitary his characters seem – they are little more than small blobs of colour in a vast, empty expanse of white space. His boy seems almost marooned in a world of lollipop trees, surly birds and some of the prettiest skyscapes I’ve ever seen in kids’ books. Adults are peripheral at best, or just plain absent – these are books where a child takes charge , makes independent decisions and some pretty profound moral choices. Of course I speak as a nitpicking adult , and you should enjoy these books just for their lovely art, their whimsical stories, gentle humour and the unexpected twist that always, always awaits you at the end. Then again, Google these books and you will realize that Jeffers’ books strike a chord not only with children around the world but millions of adults as well.
Take ‘Lost and Found’, easily the most beloved of all Jeffers’ books. This multiple award winning book has inspired a short animation film that is itself recipient of some sixty awards, innumerable fan videos and quite possibly the most beautiful fan song ever. You are drawn right from the opening frames into the boy’s dilemma – how to help his mute and lonely friend. Faced with a world that can’t – or won’t – help, the boy decides to take the penguin home himself. And so he does. It is difficult not to be moved by his simple heroism, awed by his tremendous (and sweetly paternal) courage, or get all teary eyed when the boy and his friend make their surprising discovery at last. (Move over, Forrest Gump.) In just a few words and images, Jeffers manages to tell us a story about some universal human fears – loneliness, alienation, the inability to communicate – and the extraordinary powers you just might find in the most ordinary people around you.
Jeffers ‘ fourth book, ‘The Incredible Book Eating Boy’ is very different in style and story, taking a tongue in cheek look at a boy with a unique problem. Henry discovers, quite by accident, that he likes eating books. He starts with a word, then tries a sentence, then moves on to gulping down an entire page. What’s more, he discovers that the more books he eats, the smarter he gets, as he begins spouting all the wisdom he has quite literally digested. Thrilled by his new found genius, Henry begins eating books even faster. But all this gluttony comes with a price, and soon Henry finds himself in trouble. With its mixed media collage drawings – including the pages and covers of old books that have been directly painted upon – this story felt to me like a sly parable about the perils of rote learning. Look out for the delicious little detail built into the end of the book itself – trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.
This review merely scratches the surface of Oliver Jeffers’ impressively prolific career. Besides being an acclaimed artist, he has a whole bunch of other well received books out. There is his most recent one, ‘Stuck’, about a boy who attempts to dislodge his kite from a tree – by throwing other stuff at it. There is ‘The Great Paper Caper’, that manages to work a message about environmental conservation into a hilarious yarn about a paper plane competition among the residents a of a forest. ‘Up and Down’ continues the saga of the boy and his penguin.
And then there is ‘The Heart and the Bottle’, a book that gracefully addresses the issue of bereavement in its story of a girl who seals her heart in a bottle so she won’t hurt anymore.
Much like Henry, I await my chance to gulp these down.