Connecting generations through humour: some musings on Oliver Jeffers’ picturebooks

Emma Joy Reay and Michelle Anya Anjirbag are second year PhD students who don’t study picturebooks, but were really happy to rediscover them through CRCLC Reading Group.

Earlier in Lent term, the Children’s Literature Reading Group sat down to look at Oliver Jeffers’ body of work. With about ten of our graduate students in attendance, all of whom study very different topics, we were able to have a wide-ranging and open-minded conversation about the oeuvre, which ended up in places none of us would have expected walking into that room that evening. 

The discussion itself ranged from experimenting with the glow-in-the-dark illustrations (they work), to choosing favourite spreads, to close reading different scenes. Across Jeffers’ work, we saw the same playful illustration style and understated humour that is perhaps best described as quietly knowing, with impeccably timed jokes delivered at the turn of a page. There is something about his humour that feels like the kind of off-the-cuff, easy-going patter of a natural comedian. While execution varies from book to book, common across is work is the layering of different kinds of media and the creative integration of typography. We were impressed by the rich intertextuality, which deepened the narratives presented. This allows Jeffers to explore complicated themes in child-friendly ways, and also reminds adult readers of their own capacity to experience a sense of wonder as they make connections between constellations of ideas. The collage style that he uses is in itself representative of the nature of his work, in that it encompasses and brings together divergent styles, themes, and ideas to coexist within the same space.

From A Child of Books: This image is an explosion of energy that capitalizes on that collage style. It also highlights the theme of this book in a way that the image conveys as much as the verbal narrative. Additionally, the typed words don’t just sit on top of the picture, but are incorporated into it, forcing us to read to understand movement in the image. He even uses text functionally as a shading medium here. Photo by Emma Joe Reay

The adult and the child are also allowed to coexist. Jeffers doesn’t romanticize The Child, rather the child figure is complex, mischievous and prone to mistakes. They sometimes misbehave or repeatedly make wrong choices, but Jeffers’ inscribed children do learn, and they learn with humour, love, and joy. The simplicity of his illustration style reflects this duality as well. With characters sketched in a few lines (stick legs, pinprick eyes, and a single scrawled line for a mono-brow), and the verbal narrative delivered in a child’s handwriting-esque font, Jeffers manages to convey so much – truthfully, he packs as much into a picturebook as Floyd manages to pack into a tree. 

From Stuck: The combination of perfectly imperfect squiggles with carefully chosen colour palate both evokes mood and is visually appealing. The tactility and materiality emphasize the impression that this was constructed with particular tools, which children themselves might also use. Photo by Emma Joy Reay.

Jeffers does not only draw for both adults and children – he writes sophisticatedly themed narratives that encapsulate both audiences as well, honoring childliness without infantilizing children. The child-like styles and adult themes are not at odds, but rather depend on the juxtapositions to further readers’ engagement with the narratives. Themes range from relationships with nature to negotiating one’s place in the universe, from loss and grief to loneliness. And yet, Jeffers’ style is unapologetically playful, light-hearted, and accessible. PhD student Victoria Mullins noted that his works are a good example of why it is necessary to contract ‘picture books’ to the single word “picturebooks” – Jeffers’ illustrative style is utterly inseparable from the verbal narrative. This interplay adds depth, as well as opportunities for discovery. The coexistence of both levels also serves to facilitate adult-child conversations. Through the incorporation of traditionally adult art styles or technical illustration and illustrations reminiscent of children’s drawings, Jeffers brings the adult and child into dialogue valuing both of their contributions equally.

From The Heart and the Bottle. Caption: Here, anatomical images typical of an encyclopaedia share space with paint splatters and joyful childlike cartoons. This was many peoples’ favourite spread during our discussion. Photo by Emma Joy Reay

This opportunity for more open intergenerational dialogue made us wonder what other “adult” topics this style could convey effectively. If we hold that picturebooks are primarily experienced intergenerationally, but the conversations are usually led by adults, what then can adults learn from how Jeffers frames these intergenerational conversations? We wondered if some taboo (or simply awkward) conversations that adults are generally reluctant to have with their children – the example that arose specifically in the reading group involved some birds and maybe a few bees – might be better facilitated through Jeffers’ particular lens. There is something about balancing humour and profundity that characterises his books, that teach adults more than children that life can be both impeccably planned AND gloriously messy – and this is ultimately okay.

From Lost and Found: This is a good illustration (hah!) of the simultaneously funny and profound nature of his illustrations. This book explores the theme of loneliness and how often we misunderstand it, and try to solve it through practical means. It approaches it through a sweet and absurd story of a boy and a penguin, but it also juxtaposes them finding each other in their rowboat in the ocean over the image of a pod of whales. None of us are ever truly alone. Photo by Emma Joy Reay.

Will Jeffers ever write a picturebook on sex education and health – or even just negotiating intimacy to start with? Well, only he can answer that. But as graduate students who thoroughly appreciate picturebooks, we can see a gap that could be better addressed by things like Jeffers’ works. Our world is filled with hard conversations; perhaps, scribbled into the right pages and read together, they can become easier.

From This Moose Belongs to Me: The things we love do have a way of coming back to us, don’t they? Photo by Emma Joy Reay.

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