How did the world get itself into its current state? And where do we go from here? Renowned author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers explores all these themes and more in his latest picture book, Begin Again.
Australian-Irish artist and illustrator Oliver Jeffers has entertained legions of young readers with his beautiful picture books, including titles such as How to Catch a Star, Meanwhile Back on Earth, and Here We Are. But in his latest story out this week, Oliver sets his sights on older audiences as he tackles the state of the world.
Illustrated in Oliver's acclaimed style, Begin Again goes right back to the beginning of human evolution to explore how we learned to communicate. In doing so, he aims to figure out how we have become so divided, as well as offer a sense of hope for the future.
These are big themes, but they are all tackled with Oliver's acclaimed warmth and empathy. There's no finger-pointing here; no specific person or people are to blame; instead, readers are encouraged to imagine a better world powered by purpose and love, one that isn't as impossible to achieve as it may sometimes feel.
Described as his first picture book for adults, Begin Again can be seen as something of a departure from Oliver's other titles. However, he tells Creative Boom that he never actively aimed to write for children originally. "I always saw myself as an artist foremost and fell into picture books, which I was mostly making for my own entertainment," he explains. "As Maurice Sendak once said, 'I don't write for children. I write. And someone says, "That's for children."'
Begin Again's habit of reaching into the past to uncover fundamental truths builds on Oliver's last book, Here We Are, and sees him take in a larger view of the human experience. To do so, he observed societal patterns and cut through the noise to discover why people act the way they do and figure out what they want.
"It was a matter of trying to put all those observations into a cohesive pattern, which became Begin Again," he adds. "After I began, I was like, 'I don't think this is a book for children.' I don't know if I was necessarily aiming at adults, but I just thought, 'I'm not going to try and simplify some of these things so much that I'm diluting the point.'"
Despite being a medium that's often associated with children, picture books pose unique creative opportunities when it comes to grappling with adult issues. "Some of the most powerful books on any given subject, I think, have come in the form of picture books because they force simplicity, and it's very hard to be simple," Oliver explains.
"You have to really know what the point is and get it across in a succinct manner. With images, you can convey the feeling of something and allow the viewer to bring their own interpretation, and in a way, become a co-creator of the story."
This may cause some resistance amongst older readers who consider their art days long behind them, but Oliver invites them to rediscover their creativity. "A lot of people grow up and think they don't know how to look at art; they're not an artist, they can't draw. They forget that all human beings are born naturally as artists, and we just forget to continue creating as we become self-aware adults.
"But we learned how to read a room or read facial expressions, and we learned how to read or interpret an image before we even learned how to read a word. Picture books (outside of graphic novels) are a means of communication that is very effective and underutilised."
However, the writing, not reading, proved to be Oliver's biggest challenge when creating Begin Again. "It talks about consumerism, growth as the measuring stick by which we deem success; it talks about climate and community," he says. "These are a lot of big issues that could compete with each other, but they are ultimately all connected.
"I had a sense of how I wanted people to feel at the end of that, and it took an awful lot of writing, rewriting, finessing, removing, and reordering to get to a point where I felt like it flowed naturally."
Of course, Begin Again does not just rely on Oliver's words to tell its story. It's also supported by his unique illustrations. Curiously, though, these retain the same style as those found in his children's picture books. "I did wonder if at some point whether I'd made an error, but there's a recognisable quality to my style," he says.
"To be vulnerable, when my picture book career took off, it started to overshadow my art career. And in a naive search for validation, I tried to prove to everybody 'I can paint really well!'. The art I'm making now is leaning more into the natural style I've created, which is mostly recognised in picture books, and I've sort of stopped caring what people think.
"There's a power in the recognisability of the work, and so for fear of that judgement, I thought that this is the most accessible way into the book. I probably will meet people who dismiss it and think it's a kid's book, but it would have been a less personal and less authentic book for me if I had forced a different style onto the way the characters are drawn."
Unlike his previous books, though, Begin Again ends with an author's note where Oliver explains how he actively keeps himself optimistic. "At first, it felt forced," he says. "I think we all have those moments where we think, 'What is the point?' but I'm very optimistic about the potential of humankind.
"I have an exercise I practice, which is to keep looking at motivation rather than action: why somebody did something rather than what they did. Ultimately, you get down to a place where you determine that there's been a miscommunication of the story, and people feel attacked and defend themselves. And while I'm frustrated at many things occurring in the world and at the many issues that are frustratingly far away from being resolved, I think more empathy in the world would go a long way."
In his author's note, Oliver also shares how astronauts and their distant view of the world informed the making of Begin Again. It's clear how their zoomed-out perspective influenced the storytelling, but the current, relentless pace of the news cycle also played an important part.
"I talk to taxi drivers wherever I go," Oliver adds. "I just ask them for their views on the state of the world and what's happening, why they're feeling disengaged, and do they disagree with different things that are happening. This made me realise that massive swathes of our society feel completely disconnected from the public narrative and feel lost and forgotten. That's quite a scary feeling!
"The surest way to get somebody to change their mind is not to tell them they're wrong, but that happens all too often. Take the analogy used a lot in the 2016 election, where coal mining became the poster occupation for those who were forgotten and left behind. We know coal mining and burning carbon fuels is bad, but on the other side of the equation, here's a group of people who were just told they're irrelevant. They don't matter anymore.
"There could and should have been a more humane transition, and I do think that it's possible that some sort of new narrative can be conducted that doesn't leave people behind. One of the greatest investments we can make as a society is in our people."
It's a heart-warming attitude that has resulted in a sincere and reassuring book. And it's an outlook Oliver carries with him. "I'm extremely hopeful," he concludes. "We're already starting to see that we can begin again. We're seeing a lot of resistance, and the resistance is getting more noise.
"When you look at the things that people of my generation were taught, the way we interact with the world, I think there's a Zeitgeist shift already underway. We're seeing a lot of changes in values that are happening in a subtle way that will be hard to measure for quite some time."
Begin Again is available to buy now.