Photo by Caroline Tompkins, Courtesy of Southbank Centre
From How to Catch a Star and The Way Back Home, Oliver Jeffers has written and illustrated many childhood favourites. His latest all-ages picture book, Begin Again, was born from his contemplations of the rapidly changing world, tracing the beginnings of humankind and the necessity of human connection. Part of the London Literature Festival, Jeffers’ discussion transformed the Southbank Purcell Room into a space full of wit, laughter, and hope.
Jeffers began the discussion by posing the question “Who here thinks we’re doomed?”– to which chuckles and the raising of several hands met him. Although humorous, those hands were not raised entirely in jest, piercing the atmosphere with an understated truth – and who could blame them? With rising conflicts all around us, from the climate crisis and political turmoil to the fear of AI taking over the world, eternal damnation seems pretty inevitable. However, if we can count on Oliver Jeffers for one thing, it is his ability to take the most weighty of topics and handle them with grace and empathy.
Riddled with personal anecdotes, Jeffers recounts his experience growing up in Belfast, Ireland, and the sense of division he felt within his own country. Thus, the idea of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ became a central theme in Begin Again as he notes our tendency to categorise ourselves. This then begs the question “why?” – why are we so quick to establish boundaries that wouldn’t have existed otherwise? Such a major question is addressed in Begin Again with a reminder of our power and creativity. From the beginning of the Earth, humans have been collaborating, sharing stories, inventing, and experimenting. If we could learn to unlearn our affinity for binary, what else might we achieve?
Photo by Paul Jun (licenced under CC BY 2.0)
As a writer and illustrator, Jeffers has been creating art for most of his life – something he describes as increasingly valuable for children and adults alike. Where art is often undervalued in the education system, Jeffers sees it as key to changing our perspectives on the world. It is the foundation for the sharing of ideas, communication, and connection, playing a large role in shifting the ground from under our feet. By encouraging a new generation of creators and artists, there is hope for more unity and joy in a disharmonious world.
These contemplations of life are out of character for Jeffers’ work, which we often associate with children; but when dealing with adult issues, Begin Again becomes a striking vessel that reminds us of the power of simplicity. It handles the intricacies and existential emotions by boiling them down into a few succinct words and beautiful illustrations, creating the overview effect described by astronauts looking down to Earth from space. To quote Jeffers himself, our conflicts with our “self-made enemies” must seem “laughably futile” when they are put down as words on the pages of a picture book.
In a world so often divided, Begin Again is doused in quiet warmth and hope, reflecting Jeffers’ optimism about the fate of humanity and his wishes for how we move forward. Most importantly, it asks us to consider that we all share the same Earth – that ultimately, there is only ‘us’ and where we want to go next.
This article is part of STRAND's coverage of London Literature Festival 2023.
Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor