Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Illustrating, with Oliver Jeffers

Share |
Oliver Jeffers (photo credit: Erika Hokansan)

If you have any children in your life, you've met an Oliver Jeffers fan. The Irish-raised author and illustrator's smart, funny picture books have enchanted kids and parents alike for nearly ten years now, with favourites like The Incredible Book Eating Boy and Lost and Found flying off bookstore shelves around the world.

Oliver's latest offering, This Moose Belongs to Me (HarperCollins Canada), is the story of Wilfred and his moose, Marcel. Today we speak to Oliver about how he came to picture books accidentally, the hardest things to draw and what has changed since his first book was published.

Oliver will be making a rare Canadian appearance on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at Totsapalooza, Small Print Toronto's annual celebration of kid culture. The show is sold out, but Open Book and Small Print are giving away five pairs of tickets. To enter your name in the draw, send an email to with the subject line "Totsapalooza." The contest closes on January 31, 2013, at midnight and is subject to the following rules.

Open Book:

Tell us about the illustrations in your book, This Moose Belongs to Me.

Oliver Jeffers:

They are painted on top of old reproductions of even older paintings that I’ve found in and around the streets of New York. I’ve been reacting to these paintings for some time in my fine art practice, painting in things on top of the scenes. When I was sketching out the initial feel for these illustrations I was wondering what sort of environment they’d live in, when it occurred to me to use some of these paintings. The reuse of old paintings seemed somehow appropriate to the theme of ownership in the book.


Wilfred, like all your characters, feels so real and relatable, even when he finds himself in unusual situations (like being the proud new owner of a moose). How do you get into the mind of your characters when writing? And how does this affect the illustrations, or vice versa?


I actually don’t think about it all that much. The characters just seem to intuitively come out of the end of my pencil. Perhaps because there is a degree of me in each of them. I think all good characters have an amount of honesty put into them when they are being created — a part of how their creator sees the world. The way the characters react and play out among the stories sees to occur naturally, without my putting much conscious thought into it.


As Canadians, we're particularly thrilled to see one of our national symbols appear in your work. What attracted you to using a moose as a character? How did the character of Marcel come about?


There was a Moose in The Great Paper Caper. I don’t know why. I think I just absently drew it one day and it stuck. Every so often when I was signing a copy of that book I’d draw a moose in it. Turns out I just enjoyed drawing Moose. I really can't remember which aspect of this story came out first. It just seemed to tumble out into a few drawings in my sketchbook where I mentioned the rules of being a good pet. I didn’t give the drawing much thought until a few weeks later my editor noticed it and raised its potential as a story.


Your subject matter is incredibly varied, including still life, portraits, landscape and more. Are there certain things or objects that you particularly like to draw or paint?


I don’t like paintings flowers. I don’t like drawing bicycles. I had to draw a bicycle in Stuck, so practiced a lot and became better. Flowers are still tough though.


Both children and adults adore your picture books. What drew you to working in this medium and what keeps it interesting for you? Have things changed since How To Catch a Star?


An awful lot has changed since How To Catch a Star which was almost ten years ago. I’m a different person now than when I made that book, and I think my work always reflects my tastes and interests at any given moment. I’m not one to stay for long in one spot and don’t like to repeat myself much, so it's natural my books vary. I fell into picture books by accident. Before I made picture books I considered myself a painter and used a mixture of words and pictures to tell stories in a single frame. When I discovered the picture book as a platform for mixing words and pictures, everything changed and I’ve been making them ever since. My painting inadvertently went off in a different tangent after that. I suppose it seems natural know that it did. My desire to play with words and pictures was totally satisfied in the realm of picture books.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow artists or otherwise) your artistic life?


I know this is a vague way to dodge the question, but I’m inspired by Planet Earth. I find inspiration everywhere and am influenced by the most bizarre and ordinary things. The world is large, and my brain is a sponge. As far as specific influences, there are too many, and they vary too often, to mention by name.


What are you working on now?


About 19 different projects. One of them is a collection of short stories that will come to life as an alphabet book.

Oliver Jeffers's first book, How To Catch A Star, was inspired by sitting on the end of a jetty in Sydney, looking at the stars. His Lost and Found won both the Nestlé Children’s Book Prize (Gold) and the Blue Peter Book of the Year Awar, and The Incredible Book Eating Boy was named Irish Picture Book of the Year. His other titles include The Heart and the Bottle, The Great Paper Caper and more, and have appeared on the Roald Dahl Prize Shortlist and the CBI Award Shortlist.

For more information about This Moose Belongs to Me please visit the HarperCollins Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


Open Book App Ad