Oliver Jeffers Makes Climate Picture Books for Adults and Kids Alike

(Bloomberg) -- At his studio in Belfast, Oliver Jeffers sits in front of a poster of the moon’s phases. He leans forward to talk about his work, revealing more of the image behind him. In the center of the lunar chart, the Earth emerges from behind Jeffers’s head.

We’re talking about the Earth in the wrong ways, Jeffers says. “It’s not true that the planet is broken. It is doing exactly what it should with the input it’s receiving,” he says. “It’s going to be around long after we’re gone. Life as we know it — that’s what’s in danger.”

Jeffers is a visual artist, author and climate activist whose oeuvre spans picture books, fine art, and large-scale installations. At COP26 in Glasgow, he installed two “siblings sculptures” of the Earth that he hoped would remind negotiators of the need for unified policies. In 2022, he crafted a six-mile recreation of the solar system in Northern Ireland, where he lives. And in 2017, fatherhood inspired Jeffers’s book, Here We Are, which explains the planet to kids.

This week, Jeffers is presenting and performing a live reading at the Bloomberg Green Festival in Seattle, a gathering of artists, entrepreneurs and activists.

There’s often a sense of scale and wonder in Jeffers’s work, a reflection of his view that emphasizing unity is more effective in the climate fight than leaning into blame. “My granny always said you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” he says. “Humor can be incredibly disarming. I think it’s one of the most underutilized tools in the battle against indifference to climate change.”

In Here We Are, for example, Jeffers drew on children’s hopeful feelings about the planet. “As I was walking around with a newborn baby, I was thinking… ‘Earth is beautiful and tremendous,’” he says. “And I thought other people would benefit from reminding themselves of these things they intuitively knew as children.” 

Jeffers argues that isolationism and nationalism make it easier for people to lose sight of the planet. In his COP26 sculpture, he inscribed all dry land with the phrase “People Live Here” and the oceans with “Nobody Lives Here,” a critique of the borders people use to divide themselves. When humans think about the planet in terms of large, abstract groups, it gives them permission to ignore climate change, Jeffers says.

Jeffers has been surprised by the reach of some of his work. He first conceived of Begin Again — a picture book that looks at human history from its beginnings to today — as geared at adult audiences, figuring it would go over children’s heads. But when he took the book on tour, he found it resonated with kids as well, and sparked meaningful dialogue between parents and their children. Those reactions are among his favorites, he says

Another reaction for the highlight reel: At COP26, Jeffers recalls a man approaching him to say that he had forgotten the Maldives in his sculpture of the Earth. They talked about how difficult it is to include every island nation, then the man introduced himself: “I’m the president there.”

Jeffers handed him the paintbrush, and the president added the island himself.

(Updates with new images. An earlier update corrected the location of Jeffers’s solarsystem sculpture in the third paragraph.)

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