In the midst of a pandemic, with his plans tossed aside, Oliver Jeffers was talking about joy.
Yes, joy. That goes back to his Belfast boyhood, with a mother bed-ridden by multiple sclerosis.
“We’d ask how she was and every day she’d say, ‘Great,’” recalled Jeffers, whose sunny, animated film (shown here) reaches Apple TV+ on Friday (April 17). “She said, ‘Every day that the sun comes out and I see my four children, I’m happy.’”
By comparison, current problems are tolerable. Prior to the virus shutdown, Jeffers’ film – based on his best-selling children’s book “Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth” – was timed perfectly:
Next Wednesday (April 22) marks the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day; it was expected to be a time when masses get together to rake, clean and celebrate. Instead, we’re un-massed.
But Jeffers can find some good: He savors his time at home with his wife and kids, ages 4 and 2. Also, no one’s doing much polluting. “It’s probably the best shape the Earth has been in a long time.”
How does a city kid – who’s lived mainly in Belfast and Brooklyn – become attuned to nature?
Technically, Jeffers is an Aussie native. As the Northern Ireland conflict persisted, his parents – a teacher and a nurse – moved to Australia, where he was born in 1977.
They returned when he was nine months old, living at the edge of Belfast, with nature nearby.
“There was a small mountain – or large hill – that was called ‘Napoleon’s Nose,’” Jeffers said. “That’s what inspired Jonathan Swift to write ‘Gulliver’s Travels’; he lived on Lilliput Street in Belfast.”
That story has never been officially confirmed, but it’s reasonable enough. Swift had lived in Northern Ireland; Belfast has a Lilliput Street (named after a local farm) and a 1,200-foot rock formation, with three caves and a view of the city and beyond. It was a setting that stirred Jeffers’ imagination.
He did art throughout his childhood, graduated from the University of Ulster and became an artist, illustrator and author, with such whimsical books as “The Day the Crayons Quit” and “The Incredible Book Eating Boy.”
By then, he had settled into Brooklyn. With his first child, Harlan, on the way, he pondered “having to explain everything to someone who knew nothing.”
So “Here We Are” was born, with its Earth Day focus. Harlan seemed to approve; “he brought it to his nursery school and said, ‘This is my book.’”
Now the nursery schools are closed; Jeffers and his wife spend their days with Harlan and his sister Mary, 2. The kids seem enthusiastic – Jeffers paused this interview briefly to suggest to Harlan that he needn’t pound the table with such vigor – and their dad has a virtual debut to enjoy.
“Here We Are” is a 35-minute film, done by the same people who adapted Jeffers’ “Lost and Found” in 2008. Focusing on an Earth Day jaunt, it’s narrated by Meryl Streep, with Chris O’Dowd as the dad.
Jeffers still hasn’t met Streep, but he knows O’Dowd from the ultimate Irish experience: “I met him backstage at a U2 concert.”
U2 concerts were once a big thing. So was Earth Day. Chances are, they will be again.