Picture book maker Oliver Jeffers is a builder of many things.
Books that spark wonder and awe.
Portraits that he dips into vats of enamel paint.
Sheets and cloth-peg forts with his children.
And recently, his picture book, What We’ll Build – Plans for Our Together Future.
The book starts with a dedication to Jeffers’s daughter Mari (and Granny Marie), stating simply, “We have much to do.” From there the father and daughter begin to lay the foundation for their life together. There’s even a tool kit, complete with brushes, hammers and a stuffed toy pig (clearly the most essential one) apart from the actual work that goes into building a together future – favourite things, a comfy place, facing fears and placing trust, and setting some love aside.
“This book is for Mari,” said Jeffers over a Zoom call from Belfast. “It’s about this loving relationship between us, and really it could be any two people who are in a loving relationship. It is just about the idea of planning for an unknown future.”
Set in rhyme, What We’ll Build is a companion book to Here We Are – Notes for Living on Planet Earth. Released in 2017, Jeffers wrote the picture book in the first two months of his son’s life as a way of explaining how this bewildering world works. “Going from not being a parent to being a parent is quite a big mental leap,” said the best-selling author-illustrator. “For the first time, there’s a tiny little human being that is entirely dependent on you.”
“We’re glad you found us as space is very big,” writes Jeffers in Here We Are. “There is much to see and do here on Earth, so let’s get started with a quick tour.” What follows is a stunning guide to the planet, celebrating its natural wonders, introducing the many people and animals that live on it, and stressing the importance of being kind.
In What We’ll Build, Jeffers explores another aspect of parenting – the future. In fact, time seems to be a mainstay in both the books. In Here We Are, Jeffers reminds the reader to “use your time well. it will be gone before you know it.” What We’ll Build opens with an illustration of the father and daughter’s hands, the former wearing a broken watch. Jeffers said that the watch was given to him by his father – “It was broken for ages until I finally got it replaced. I thought it was a nice way to begin, that time shifted meaning after these children came into our lives.”
Both books join a number of critically-acclaimed picture books that have sold over 12 million copies worldwide. Jeffers’s books resonate with young and old readers, as they uncannily depict childhood in all its innocence, joy, seriousness and emotional depth. There’s the story of a boy who is trying to figure out How to Catch a Star because he loves them so much, the book about a girl who puts her heart in a safe place in The Heart and the Bottle, and how all A Child of Books needs is imagination to set sail on an adventure.
What We’ll Build was completed almost a year before the global pandemic started, yet it feels prophetic. When Jeffers writes about building “…[a] place to stay when all is lost, to keep the things we love the most,” it resonates with the spaces and companionship that people turned to during the lockdown. Jeffers however says that the book was made in, and for, a very different world than the one that we are in. However, he agrees that “it plays on the things that we’ve used and needed more during the lockdown – the bonds of the relationships and imagination. And the idea of an unknown future is very real, much more real than when I was making this book.”
During the lockdown, Jeffers launched Stay at Home Story Time, where he read a book a day live on Instagram through March and April. “We are all at home, but none of us are alone. Let’s be bored together,” he explained on his website. Apart from Jeffers, many children’s book authors and illustrators took to social media, with read-aloud sessions and art workshops. This included Mac Barnett, Chris Haughton, Wendy MacNaughton, Carson Ellis, and Sophie Blackall. The campaign was enthusiastically adopted in India by children’s authors and illustrators, including Natasha Sharma, Roopa Pai and Venita Coelho, under the hashtag, Thoda Reading Corona.
In some ways, the global campaign became a celebration of children’s literature, its creators and readers. A testament to the power of storytelling, underscored by an insistence for a future world which is better than the one that exists now – something Jeffers feels strongly about. “Children’s literature, as someone once explained it to me, is a big responsibility as it’s the first portal that human beings have to the cultural world and to their understanding of the arts, the idea of stories that aren’t about themselves, to share concepts of something greater than themselves,” said Jeffers, pointing out that these books often resonate themes of sharing, empathy and bravery, values he feels modern adult society lacks. “I think children’s books will continue to do what they do well, and have always done, but [we should] maybe encourage more adults to read them.”
What We’ll Build – Plans For Our Together Future, Oliver Jeffers, HarperCollins.