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    Oliver Jeffers hopes to change minds. That’s why ‘Begin Again’ includes an essay
    • October 20, 2023

    We need better stories, says Oliver Jeffers.

    “Human beings are a story-driven species. We are all just a collection of stories,” he says. “You can change the story.”

    The Belfast-born Jeffers and I were meeting for coffee at Traxx inside Union Station Los Angeles as midday sunlight streamed through the station’s tall windows. He’d just arrived on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner from San Diego, where he’d had an event the night before. Jeffers is on a book tour for “Begin Again,” a new work filled with his signature visual style, wry humor and – as has been the case of his more recent books – deep concerns about the state of the planet.

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    “This is a difficult book to put out in the world, not because it was difficult to make, but because nobody knows what to do with it,” he says. “Its message is simple: How do we change the way that we think to a way that’s more constructive to our existence?”

    Dealing with things like climate change in a piecemeal, country-by-country way is “laughably futile,” he says, comparing its effectiveness to “a non-smoking section on an airplane.”

    “We have to stop thinking in that fragmented way,” says Jeffers. “Otherwise we’re done for.”

    Unusual for a picture book – even one thoughtful enough to make the case for the survival of our grandchildren’s grandchildren (and generations beyond) –  there’s an essay at the end where Jeffers writes, “What is this book exactly? I think it is a visual history, current review, and suggested trajectory for the human story.”

    Like our conversation – which touches on climate change, income inequality, national borders and more – the essay is intelligent, passionate and, yes, funny.

    “I think that took almost as long to write as the book,” he says.

    Author and artist Oliver Jeffers, whose latest book is “Begin Again,” stands in Union Station on Oct. 11, 2023. (Photo by Erik Pedersen/SCNG)

    Story time

    When Jeffers says we need better stories, he’s not talking about what’s streaming on TV or topping the bestseller list. Having grown up Catholic in Northern Ireland – and recently moved his family back there – he’s attuned to the tales we tell ourselves, which can do everything from inspire our noblest aspirations to justify violence or hate.

    “One of the things that spurred this book on was I met an old lady in Belfast once we got back just before lockdown,” he says. “I asked her, ‘Do you think we’re going to be in lockdown for a long time?’ and she goes, ‘I do. I thought this was going to be like [World War II] … but it’s not, because back then everybody tried to see how they could help. But look around, everybody’s just trying to see what they can get away with.’”

    Jeffers, whose work has grown more complex after he and wife Suzanne started a family, says parenthood made him more attuned to the narratives we share.

    “When our son was born, I just suddenly was aware of how bitter and angry and divided the world really seemed. That’s not the story I wanted to tell him. So I was looking at the simple beauty of being alive on earth and how easy it is to dismiss that,” says Jeffers. “It’s easy to get angry and it’s easy to feel dismayed, but there is a lot that’s going well.”

    He credits Suzanne’s skills as a mother for teaching him “the most important geopolitical lessons I’ve learned in my life,” which include, “You’ll never get anybody to change their mind by telling them they’re wrong,” he says.

    Books by Oliver Jeffers. (Courtesy of Philomel)

    Books and music 

    Nearly two decades since his first picture book was published, Jeffers has become a cultural force. He’s created artwork for U2, including for its “Ordinary Love” single and “Innocence + Experience” concert tour, and designed slippers for the company FEIT. He’s given a TED talk, heard Meryl Streep narrate his book “Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth” in a screen adaption and been asked to write more essays (and gotten editing help from Roxane Gay).

    But Jeffers is best known to countless children and parents for his remarkable picture books, which include “Lost & Found,” “How to Catch a Star” and “Stuck,” as well as collaborations “The Day the Crayons Came Home” with Drew Daywalt and “A Child of Books” with Sam Winston. (Jeffers told me that he and Winston are at work on another collaboration.)

    I ask Jeffers about “Stuck,” which is a hilarious story of a boy whose kite gets caught in a tree, and about humor in general.

    “[Humor]’s a sort of sneaky technique to get past people’s defenses. It’s easy to make people cry, but it’s really hard to make them laugh. And if you can get in there, there’s a degree of trust, I think, established,” says Jeffers who credits his three brothers and life in Northern Ireland for honing his sense of what’s funny. “We find humor in everything. Nothing is sacred.”

    As for “Stuck,” Jeffers says it was inspired by a real-life misadventure in Rhode Island with an expensive runaway kite. Since he can tell it’s a favorite of mine, he reveals something about the book’s conclusion (which I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t read it) and its inspiration (which I’ll share). As Jeffers was struggling to finish the book, he sat down to watch the 1969 heist film “The Italian Job” with his brother and nephews and suddenly everything clicked – and so Jeffers slipped a nod to that film and its star covertly into the book.

    “So the fireman says on the very last page of ‘Stuck,’ ‘Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea’ – that’s Michael Caine’s last line” in “The Italian Job,” he says. (The ending is hysterical whether you know that or not.)

    Nor could I let the opportunity pass without asking about U2. He’d just spent time with the band in Las Vegas to see its Sphere show.

    “They were terrific,” says Jeffers. “They’re just constantly pushing themselves.”

    He describes his time working with the band as a total pleasure. “I was treated as a collaborator, not hired help,” he says, and laughs at how he would sometimes be there while they were making music. “I would be sometimes in band meetings … and then they’ll be asking my opinion on things like, What do you think of that guitar riff? And then I realize I’m giving them notes! What the [heck] do I know? But they were listening.”

    Author and artist Oliver Jeffers, whose latest book is “Begin Again,” in Los Angeles’ Union Station on Oct. 11, 2023. (Photo by Erik Pedersen/SCNG/Cover courtesy of Philomel)

    Hope for the future

    Jeffers, whose characters have looked to the skies or traveled in space, draws inspiration from the overview effect – the understanding of Earth as a single, united place, which astronauts have reported feeling when viewing the planet from above.

    “Frank White, he was one of the engineers at NASA, said, ‘We’re going to have to start acting as one species with one destiny; we’re not going to survive if we don’t start doing that,’” says Jeffers.

    But he remains hopeful, attributing that sense of what’s possible to his late mother. “People do ask me, How do you remain optimistic?” he says.

    “My mother had MS [multiple sclerosis] for my whole life; she died 20 years ago and I have no memory of her walking. And yet when we asked her how she was she would smile and say, ‘Great,’ and mean it. Because she had shifted her priorities. She was like, ‘You know what, I get to see the sunrise another day; I get to look at my four boys walking around, safe and healthy.’ And she meant it,” he says.

    “Remembering just the sheer fragility and incredibleness of being alive,” he says. “It all helps.”

    If you can take a longer view, Jeffers says, it’s possible to see all the ways that life has improved over the centuries.

    “Things have been going better,” he says. “I do think that we have forgotten how much has gone well for us.”



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    Thanks, as always, for reading.



    ‘Do Tell’ author Lindsay Lynch on achieving a life goal

    Lindsay Lynch is the author of “Do Tell.” (Photo by Heidi Ross / Courtesy of Doubleday)

    Lindsay Lynch’s debut novel, “Do Tell,” takes place in Hollywood and follows Edie O’Dare, a character actress who is also a source for a notorious gossip columnist. Lynch immersed herself (virtually) in sunny Los Angeles for the novel, which was a pick for a book club at Parnassus Books in Nashville where Lynch works as a book buyer (alongside her dog, Barnabus). She spoke with Michael Schaub about the book and here responds to the Book Pages questions about books, reading and more.

    Q: Is there a book or books you always recommend to other readers?

    What good is having a job at a bookstore if you can’t bully people into reading your favorite books! At Parnassus, one of my long-time favorite handsells is Tove Jansson’s “The Summer Book.” It’s one of those books that works as a universal donor, you can give it every kind of reader. It follows a young girl and her grandmother spending a summer on a Finnish island — it’s short, charming, witty, and has the bonus of illustrations from the great Tove Jansson.

    Q: How do you decide what to read next?

    I have to strike a balance between my job at the store and my job as a writer when it comes to my reading habits. As a book buyer, I have to stay up on new releases and trends, but as a writer, I mostly want to be reading backlist and books by dead people. I tend to trade off between the two, unless I’m in the thick of book research, then I’m usually heavy on obscure nonfiction — I’m hoping someday I’ll get the balance right!

    Q: Do you have any favorite book covers?

    The covers for Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet always make me swoon—I’m a little more partial to the U.K. editions (because who can resist a David Hockney painting?) but the U.S. ones are perfection as well.

    Q: Do you listen to audiobooks? If so, are there any titles or narrators you’d recommend?

    For whatever reason, I can’t follow fiction on audio, so if I’m listening to an audiobook, it’s probably nonfiction. I’m listening to Michael Finkel’s “The Art Thief” right now and I’m hooked!

    Q: Which books do you plan, or hope, to read next?

    I put up a big stink to the bookstore’s sales reps about getting a galley for Lauren Groff’s “The Vaster Wilds,” but I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t had the mental bandwidth to read it yet. For me, reading a new Lauren Groff is something akin to a spiritual experience, so I’m anxiously waiting until I can give it my full attention. I adored “Matrix” and was so happy when I heard she was writing more historical fiction.

    Q: Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?

    I recently achieved what I assume is the life goal of any novelist, which is receiving a note from your favorite high school English teacher. I had the greatest teacher my senior year. She was such a passionate and empathetic reader. She’d get emotional talking about characters from the classics — anything from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison — and it was an incredible reminder of how vulnerable it is to read and respond to novels with other people.

    Q: What do you find the most appealing in a book: the plot, the language, the cover, a recommendation? Do you have any examples?

    I’m a bit of a softie for a good love story at the heart of my books. I don’t necessarily mean it in the romantic sense, I’ll take platonic love, self-love, love of an idea. That being said, I do love a good literary romance — I reread A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” and Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle” whenever I need a healthy dose of yearning.



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