Alternate Worlds: Picture book illustrator Oliver Jeffers stars in the high

At High, children explore the world of picture book illustrator and author Oliver Jeffers. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

What would you do if your kite got stuck in a tree? Can you imagine that there is a boy who learns by eating books? What would happen if all the crayons got fed up and decided to quit? Do you think if you try hard enough you could catch a star?

There is one man who has the answer to these puzzling questions: Oliver Jeffers, a Northern Irish illustrator and author who now lives and works in Brooklyn. He is known for creating picture books that showcase his imaginative and humorous take on ideas that seduce and captivate children and adults alike.

Jeffers’ bibliography includes 18 books that he both wrote and illustrated and another 10 for which he was the illustrator. Known for his use of mixed media to convey subtle narratives and careful use of space in composition, his characters transport readers to alternate worlds where anything is possible and silliness is to be expected.

His work has won numerous awards, including number one on the New York Times Best Seller list for The day the crayons stopped. Jeffers has sold more than 10 million books since his first book, How to catch a starwas released in 2004.

“Oliver Jeffers: 15 Years of Picture Books” An exhibition currently on view at the High Museum of Art through August 7 offers a unique insight into the process of this incredible artist. With 80 original sketches, drawings and illustrations, the exhibition is like a window into Jeffers’ world of thought.

In the gallery, viewers are transported to a land of appearances. Innovative elements include a large mural at the entrance, a handcrafted 3D tree depicting the tree from the book pluggeda wall plastered with a massive illustration of the solar system pulled from the sides of Here we are, and oversized stars hanging from the ceiling. Kids look for hidden penguins all over the room, occasionally stopping to read one of his books and chuckling to themselves as they flip from page to page.

“For me, Jeffer’s work is all about connections — the connections between people, with our surroundings, with the world,” said Melissa Katzin, manager of family programs at the High Museum of Art. This exhibition marks Katzin’s first exhibition curated, and her enthusiasm and knowledge of the artist is unparalleled.

“Jeffers’ illustrations are filled with humor and silliness, but also with seriousness, emotion and real and understandable problems.”

Perhaps you, like me, are wondering why these works are called “picture books” and not “children’s books.” Katzin explained that Jeffers says he doesn’t write or illustrate for children, but does the work for himself. A child at heart, he wants his works to be inclusive of all ages and feels that the term ‘children’s books’ is not broad enough.

Jeffers is a classically trained visual artist who regularly exhibits his oil paintings and sculptural installations. With a passion for creation and a robust sense of humor, he approaches the world with curiosity and lightheartedness. When Jeffers became a parent, he found his new role inspirational, and many of the themes he explores draw directly from his real life.

“I love that a lot of Jeffer’s stories and pictures are inspired by his daily life, stories he hears or things he notices around him,” Katzin continues. “The book Lost and found was inspired by a true story – a boy in Northern Ireland, where Jeffers is from, took a penguin from a zoo in the 1990s and kept him in his bathtub overnight. How to catch a star came to him as he was looking across Sydney Harbor and saw lights reflected in the water. That huey Series was inspired by his own family – his grandfather had 19 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren; He couldn’t remember all the names, so he called them all Huey.”

The Jeffers exhibit is just the latest in the high’s picture-perfect exhibition series, which began in 2013. Seven previous collections displayed at the museum include the works of Jerry Pinkney, Mo Willems, Eric Carle, Ashley Bryan Winnie PoohMaira Kalman and Imagine the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in Children’s Books which was installed in 2019. The museum has built a history of celebration from picture book illustrators, and when combined with the innovative design choices of the space itself, the effect is magical and inspiring.

“We all wanted some big, eye-catching moments that viewers would want to explore more, but that would also connect to specific books or illustrations,” continued Katzin. “The Alliance Theater made the tree out of it plugged. The penguin, one of my favorite characters Jeffers created, is designed to help guide young visitors through the galleries with special family-oriented labels.”

If you are a parent, you will no doubt be familiar with many of these illustrations and their accompanying books. But one thing is for sure – whether you have children at home, are a child at heart or just simply love illustrations, the Jeffers exhibition is sure to inspire, amuse and confuse you.

To learn more, visit the High Museum website.

“Oliver Jeffers: 15 Years of Picture Books” can be seen in the High until August 7th. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

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