Kids explore the world of picture book illustrator and author Oliver Jeffers at the High. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

What would you do if your kite got stuck in a tree? Could you imagine if there was 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 tried hard enough, you could catch a star? 

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

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

His work has won numerous awards including the No. 1 spot on The New York Times Best Seller list for The Day the Crayons Quit. Jeffers has sold more than 10 million books since his first book, How to Catch a Star, was published in 2004. 

“Oliver Jeffers: 15 Years of Picturing Books,” an exhibition currently on display at the High Museum of Art through Aug. 7, offers a unique insight into the process of this incredible artist. Featuring 80 original sketches, drawings, and illustrations, the exhibit is like a window into the mind of Jeffers. 

Viewers are transported to a land of make believe in the gallery. Innovative elements include a large mural at the entrance, a 3D tree hand-crafted to represent the one from the book Stuck, a wall plastered with a massive solar system illustration pulled from the pages of Here We Are, and oversized stars hanging from the ceiling. Children look for hidden penguins throughout the space, occasionally stopping to read one of his books and giggling quietly to themselves as they flip from page to page.

“To me, Jeffers’ work is all about connections – the connections between people, with our environment, with the world,” said Melissa Katzin, Manager of Family Programs at the High Museum of Art. This exhibition is Katzin’s first time curating a show, and her enthusiasm and knowledge of the artist is unparalleled. 

“Jeffers’ illustrations are full of humor and silliness, but also a lot of seriousness, emotion, and real and relatable problems.”

You might find yourself wondering, as I did, why these works are referred to as ‘picture books’ instead of ‘children’s books.’ Katzin explained that Jeffers says he doesn’t write or illustrate for children, but rather does the work for himself. A child at heart, he wants his works to be inclusive for all ages, and feels that the term ‘children’s books’ is not inclusive enough. 

Jeffers is a classically-trained fine artist who regularly exhibits his oil paintings and sculptural installation. With a passion for creation and a robust sense of humor, his approach to the world is curious and light-hearted. When Jeffers became a parent he found his new role inspiring, and many of the topics he explores are pulled directly from his real life. 

“I love that many of Jeffers’ stories and images are inspired by his daily life, stories he hears, or things he notices around him,” continued Katzin. “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 it in his bathtub overnight. How to Catch a Star came to him when he was looking across Sydney Harbor and saw lights reflected in the water. The Huey series was inspired by his own family – his grandfather had 19 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren; he couldn’t keep track of all of their names, so he called them all Huey.”

The Jeffers exhibit represents only the latest in the High’s picture book exhibition series which began in 2013. Seven previous collections showcased at the museum include the works of Jerry Pinkney, Mo Willems, Eric Carle, Ashley Bryan, Winnie-the-Pooh, Maira Kalman, and Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Children’s Books which was installed in 2019. The museum has established a history of celebrating 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 visitors would want to explore more, but would also connect to specific books or illustrations,” Katzin continued. “The Alliance Theatre created the tree from Stuck. The penguin, one of my favorite characters Jeffers has created, is meant to help guide young visitors through the galleries with special family-focused labels.”

If you are a parent you’ll no doubt be familiar with many of these illustrations and their respective books. But one thing is for sure – whether you’ve got children at home, if you’re a child at heart, or if you simply love illustration, the Jeffers exhibit will certainly inspire, amuse, and bemuse you.

To learn more, visit the High Museum website

“Oliver Jeffers: 15 Years of Picturing Books,” is on view through Aug. 7 at the High. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.