Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth was inspired by the birth of Jeffers’ son, Harland. It’s a stunningly illustrated guide to Earth, told through a series of moving notes. According to the announcement from publisher Penguin Young Readers, “From land and sky, to people and time, the notes explore what makes the world and how we live in it.” Here We Are hits shelves Nov. 21, 2017, and EW can share a first look at the cover below.
We also caught up with Jeffers, who explains the book’s genesis, why he decided to start speaking out politically, and why it’s sometimes better to be “obviously incorrect” when it comes to translating complex science into a book for tots.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
OLIVER JEFFERS: To be honest, it started without me knowing what it was. I took my son home from the hospital [after he was born], and as we walked into the apartment, I kind of started giving the tour of a classic New York one-bedroom apartment, jokingly. Like, “Well, here we are. This is where you live.” I brought him into the kitchen and said, “This is the kitchen. This is where we prepare the food. Yeah, you haven’t really eaten anything ever before, so food is what fuels you and it goes into your stomach… we’ll get there.” And as we were walking around the neighborhood over the next couple weeks and months, I was just explaining things to him. The explaining was as much for my benefit as it was for his, because obviously, he didn’t understand a word I said.
So I started making these notes and remembering things my parents have said to me. It acted as this platform upon which I was able to lift myself up and look over the parapet and just kind of clear away the fog and actually see the most basic, important things. It’s funny because in all of my books, I’ve never been moralistic, as much as I can help that, because I never felt that that was my place. But strangely, this time around, I was like, “You know what? I’m getting on my moralistic high horse, and I’m proud of it.”
Was that because you’re a dad now, or because you felt like you were seeing the world burning around us?
I think it’s a combination of both because I noticed that right around the time I knew I was going to be a dad, I started becoming a little more political and vocal and active on social media. I always stayed away from that before, thinking, “That’s not my place. Who am I to say?” Then as things started getting weirder and scarier, I thought to myself, “Hmm, if I don’t speak up, who will? And how can I tell my son that yes, I tried to play my part when everything was going seemingly belly-up, and spoke out about things that were absolutely wrong?” I do think that silence in the face of injustice makes you complicit in some way.
What is the tone of the book? Is it urgent? Hopeful?
Happy, excited, hopeful — timeless, maybe. There’s a degree of urgency in its timing, and I worked with publishers to make this happen. Once the idea was fully formed, it was like, “Okay, I think that people will benefit from this now more than ever.” I could have taken another year to make it and released it at leisure. So there is a degree of urgency in the timing, but also, there’s no urgency in the voice. There’s no panic in the voice. I feel like it comes from a calm, collected place. It’s almost humorous in places as well.
It wouldn’t be an Oliver Jeffers book without a little humor.
Yeah, humor underplays everything I do. Maybe that’s from growing up in Northern Ireland, where if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, and nobody wants to cry.
Without having seen the inside of the book, does it get into the minutiae of life, like, “Here’s the house, here’s the kitchen?” Or is it broader?
It’s even more basic than that. It’s like, “Here is your body. Here are the basic things that a person needs to do, which is to eat, drink, stay warm, and sleep.” And, “When the sun is out, it’s daytime and we do stuff, and when it’s nighttime and it’s dark, we sleep.” It goes on: “Things will sometimes move slowly, but they will also move quickly, so use your time well. It will be gone before you know it.” And then it’s really projecting forward into the future. There’s a line that’s something like, “We’ve come a long way with our planet, but there is plenty left for you to do. Just make sure you leave notes for everybody else.”
Did you have to do any research about the planet?
The funny thing is, I decided that it wasn’t going to be academically accurate, because I probably would open myself up to too much criticism for that. So rather than getting into [the science], when I describe the sky, I just say, “Uh, it’s complicated.” And then I’ve got a diagram showing constellations and other planets. I had a line saying “the stratosphere” and then outer space, but as soon as I researched that, I realized there’s five levels to it — the troposphere, the atmosphere, the stratosphere, blah blah. I was like, “You know, this will ruin the momentum of the book. I’ve got to figure out a way to simplify this.” And the only way to do that without being incorrect is to be obviously incorrect, if you know what I mean. So instead of calling it “the stratosphere” and labeling all five layers, I just said “the stratos-thingy.” I don’t think any scientist will haul me over the coals for that.