Unbridled creativity in publishing is nothing but an optimistic notion. Darling characters, plots and illustrated spreads are not only reigned in, they’re killed, shredded, pummeled, resuscitated and reshaped for publication. Keen eyes, ears and a preternatural sense of audience constantly create and answer bookshelf trends. No more vampires! Nix the collage books! Bring me a cross-cultural supernatural romance set in Civil War–era Georgia!
In tracking fluctuating trends over t he last several years, I’ve witnessed consistent discouragement from agents, editors and art directors to proposals of rhyming manuscripts or picture books showcasing the alphabet.
Fortunately, Oliver Jeffers hasn’t been paying attention. His latest picture book, Once Upon an Alphabet, features both rhymes and those 26 letters. When I speak to him on the phone, he is in the midst of a European tour for his fine art endeavors and laughs when I ask if his book was an act of exquisite defiance.
“Clearly, I wasn’t listening to anyone’s advice on this one,” says Jeffers. “I don’t have my finger that firmly on the pulse of what’s happening. Which I’m a little ashamed of and which also might be a blessing in disguise, sometimes, because I can concentrate on what I’m doing and what I want to do rather than being very aware of what trends and flows and what people want to see and what people don’t want to see.”
He regrets that he might be missing out on the creation of some great books by not being more trend-attentive. However, with his picture book How to Catch a Star still going strong after 10 years and The Day the Crayons Quit (written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Jeffers) a New York Times best-seller, he has still produced a cornucopia of prolific work without taking an industry pulse.
Why start now?
Once Upon an Alphabet pairs loose and lively illustrations with sometimes-sweet, often witty and comical short stories specific to each letter of the alphabet. A guard, a gorilla and a glacier populate G’s spreads, and R reveals how the recalcitrance of rain clouds ruins robots. But it isn’t all fun and games when (spoiler alert!) a determined little cup breaks between B and D. With 26 opportunities for singular stories, there were bound to be certain letters who lent themselves more easily to storytelling than others.
“There are three or four that never changed. Right from the first idea and the first crack, they came fully formed,” says Jeffers. “Like the first story, A, the astronaut with the fear of heights, and Owl and the Octopus, they were there in the very first draft. But pretty much every other letter got an overhaul at some point or another.”
Owl and Octopus, perhaps mostly because of their mismatched appeal, are automatically charismatic and even make repeat appearances in other stories. (“They search for problems. They solve them. They move on,” Jeffers says.) They undertake a mission to find a misinformed sea cucumber in S, and they assist Xavier, who has been robbed in X. A problem-solving pair comprised of tentacles and feathers and executed à la Jeffers sounds like a duo that should receive star treatment in their own stand-alone book.
“That’s something that I haven’t ruled out, because they would lend themselves quite easily to an independent story,” says Jeffers. “Let’s just say that the idea has occurred to me as well, and I’m going to experiment with it and see how it works.”
In September, an interactive installation of Jeffers’ work opened at the Discover Children’s Story Centre in London. I mention that the Centre’s Interim Chief Executive, Sarah Dance, said that Jeffers’ books capture the themes of loneliness and friendship and ask if he agrees with that summation.
“There are no themes that I consciously go toward,” says Jeffers. “It’s interesting because it came up in an early interview in my career. Someone asked, ‘Do you decide on the moral you want your book to have first or do you decide on the story and try to insert the moral afterward?’ And I thought, ‘Well, the answer to that question is neither.’ I just try to tell good stories, and the morals seem to come quite naturally.”
Jeffers is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, but has been living in New York City for eight years and in Brooklyn for five of those. In that time, he has written and illustrated a number of picture books and continued his fine art endeavors (he created the album cover for the EP of U2’s song about Nelson Mandela, a project that he calls “an incredible honor”), so clearly the guy is pretty busy. Is Brooklyn the catalyst for all that productivity?
“I think it’s the people,” says Jeffers. “I think New York City, unlike any other city in the world, is filled with people who go there who want to accomplish. So there’s a drive and a palpable energy about the place that are inspiring and drive you forward. It’s an incredibly inspirational place to be. And I bounce well off of other people. I don’t think anyone makes art in a bubble, and I think it’s a very positive thing to share your ideas and share your works and the way in which you work with other people.”
But still, he can’t expect too much from this book. Sure, it’s beautiful; sure, the palette somehow harmonizes neon orange, indigo, a steely turquoise and ochre; and sure, there are characters who need to be nudged into their own book. But it’s an alphabet book. That rhymes. Tsk tsk tsk.
“I’m firing it into the air and I’m not entirely sure where it will land, and hopefully there’s a soft landing underneath, Jeffers says. “Or it might hit a rock and bounce around for a little while. The fun is in firing it into the air in the first place.”
If that’s the case, here’s a hearty toast to more fun from the letters O and J.
Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is at work on his own picture book and teen novel.