Dad Wisdom

20 Years Later, Oliver Jeffers Gets Very Real

With Begin Again, the prolific children’s book author tackles the history of everything.

Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Penguin Random House
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When your kids ask you why the world exists or why people fight, what do you say? For parents everywhere, one of the biggest challenges in being a parent is simply that you don’t have all the answers, but certain smaller humans expect that you do. But, in this paradox of both responsibility and amateur-hour explanations, parents have an ally: award-winning children’s book author Oliver Jeffers.

If you’ve been a parent for more than a year, you’re probably already aware of Jeffers’ hilarious picture books, namely, The Incredible Book Eating Boy, Stuck, or, the epic story of very angry wax, The Day the Crayons Quit. His first book — How to Catch a Star — was published exactly twenty years ago, in 2004. And for the past two decades, Jeffers’ books have defined a certain type of whimsical picture book; the kind that is both funny and heartfelt, with unforgettable illustrations that are anything but generic. His latest picture book is different. With Begin Again, Oliver Jeffers attempts to tell the entire story of the world, while offering readers some kind of explanation for how we carry on through all the madness. It’s heavy, cathartic stuff, and might be best for your slightly older kid, rather than, say, a toddler. In speaking with Fatherly, Jeffers even admitted that the book “went way over the head of my 8-year-old.”

As a dad to a son and a daughter, Harland and Mari, Jeffers knows a thing or two about how parenting changes the way you look at the world. After all, his first kid, his son, was born in 2015, and at that point, he’d already been writing children’s books for a decade. “You get this filter on parenthood in which you think about your own life slightly differently,” he tells us.

With this perspective, we spoke to Jeffers about the weighty significance of Begin Again, how he tries to make sense of the world, and why it’s OK that parents are totally unqualified to answer the hardest questions kids will ask.

Begin Again is very different than your other books —The Day the Crayons Quit, or The Incredible Book Eating Boy, for example. This book seemed to have different goals. But why?

It’s not like I sit down and I’m like, OK, I’m going to have an idea now. What is that idea going to be? I think you just try to capture moments and thoughts of little ideas together. I knew I needed to do another book. But, I didn’t sit down thinking that I was going to write a book about the state of the world.

And yet, you did! What is Begin Again about, for you?

It was a sudden epiphany I had about Northern Ireland. I think the microcosm is: why are people prioritizing being right over being better? And there was this sort of sudden urgency that I have to put that on paper in some way, shape, or form. A big chunk of the book sort of exploded out of that moment.

It’s just me sort of trying to make sense of the chaos and laying out these very long patterns that I see. And some of that comes from where I physically am and where I've physically been exploring. I’ve been comparing the deep-rooted motivations that seem to foster people forward and then applying them elsewhere in the world. It ultimately comes down to the question of where miscommunication comes from.

I feel like as a dad, or as parents and caregivers, we never feel qualified to talk to our kids about the history of the world or the future world, and yet we must. How can we lack qualification and yet have the responsibility at the same time?

Yes, we’re totally unqualified. But what else can we do? When both of my children came home from the hospital, there was this radical emotional shift. Like, wait a minute, they’re just gonna let us leave here? There’s no test? So, somebody has to talk about this stuff. I just want to try and do it in as much of a positive way as possible.

Begin Again has big themes, but it still has a story. Maybe not like your other books ...

It all comes down to storytelling — the story that we will tell our children is one that will ultimately impart to them for a very long time. I heard it once said that the first two years of your life is when your hardware is set, and then the next five years is when your software is set and you can update your software I guess with some difficulty later on in life, but you can't really update your hardware. So, just thinking about the responsibility of that, you have to be gentle with everyone, for we all carry a great weight.

I think taking that filter of fatherhood and applying it to almost every other aspect of my life has been a big part of my worldview. I think it’s a willingness to say: Let’s just not assume everybody knows everything and go at that gracefully.

Could this book be for people other than kids? Is that sneakily the goal?

Is this for anybody who feels slightly misplaced forgotten or lost? Could it be a construction worker, the cleaner in a hotel, or a lab worker who just doesn't feel that they resonate with the rest of the world and feels like it's all hopeless and it's all coming apart? All of those people, I think, are the target audience.

But, saying that this book isn’t for kids? No, I’ve realized that’s not true. It is a family book, and it’s an invitation or a guide. Possibly a guide for a conversation between parents and children to have, rather than it being a bedtime story. I think about this a lot: as Frederick Douglass said, it's easier to build strong children than repair broken men.

Begin Again: How We Got Here and Where We Might Go - Our Human Story. So Far is out now. Jeffers’ next book; The Dictionary Storycreated with Sam Winston — will be published in August 2024.