HIS PICTURE books capture in illustrations what words often can't describe: the longing for friendship; a curiosity to explore worlds beyond our own front door; the moment we realise that someone we love isn't coming back and the freedom that comes with simply being ourselves.
Each of Oliver Jeffers' nine award-winning, best-selling picture books have a distinctive feel, but all of them share his peculiar take on the world, beginning with his first book, How To Catch a Star, published in 2005. It's a story about a boy who attempts the impossible, and much more.
Talking from his apartment in New York City, Jeffers' thoughts turn to the recent death of American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak, creator of Where the Wild Things Are.
''He's one of my biggest influences,'' he says. ''In fact, he's the reason why the boy in How To Catch a Star and Lost and Found is wearing a stripy jumper - it's a homage to Max. I've always loved Where the Wild Things Are, not just because of the underlying psychology of the book but because it's a good story that's visually inviting.''
Born in Western Australia in 1977, Jeffers' Irish parents returned to Northern Ireland when he was 10 months old. ''Growing up in Belfast was fine, but there was a lot of turmoil. I learnt where not to go and what not to say. I was pretty savvy about self-preservation,'' he recalls of his youth.
''There was one summer that was really crap. I was 17 years old and I couldn't leave the house, but my dad was affiliated with the YMCA, so the following year I went to a summer camp in upstate New York and ended up spending time in New York City.''
That city made a big impression and now Jeffers and his wife live and work in Brooklyn, which is a constant creative influence.
''It's a great place to be an artist, and in ways that other cities aren't. For one thing, being Northern Irish in New York is a lot better than being Northern Irish in London. People choose to be in New York, whereas people seem to end up in London and get stuck, so this is a city that's full of enthusiastic people who are determined to succeed.'' Determination was something Jeffers already had when he decided to write his first book. ''I'd been making art that was getting very close to picture books and I suppose the fork in the road would have arrived at some point. I felt like I had a strong idea and when I looked at a lot of books that were being published [in the late '90s], a lot of them were pretty soulless."
One of Jeffers' most popular books, The Heart and the Bottle (2010), could never be described in such terms. It tells the story of a girl and the bond she shared with her late father and how intense feelings of grief shaped the rest of her adult life. It charts her life from loss to acceptance and finally peace in such a nuanced, cliche-free way that the book found an audience in children and adults alike.
''I'm not writing books because I've got some checklist or to make anyone a lot of money. For me, each book is an extension of myself and sometimes the [books] attract a dual audience.''
Jeffers' illustrative style defies classification. Using a range of media - pen, ink, collage, watercolours; some characters are little more than a few hasty dots and strokes in the right place - they can convey a remarkable breadth of emotions.
In Jeffers' books, anything is possible - a boy discovers he can acquire knowledge, not by reading books but by eating them (on the back cover of The Incredible Book Eating Boy, 2006, the bottom corner has a neat bite mark). In The Way Back Home, a boy flies his plane to the moon but runs out of fuel and winds up helping a little green man find his way home. In Stuck (2011), a kite caught in the branches of a very peculiar tree sets off a series of events that involves everything from a rhinoceros, a lighthouse and a postman.
It's this blend of the everyday and the absurd that makes each new book feel fresh and original. Many of his books have launched diverse creative endeavours. The Heart and the Bottle became one of the best examples of a book-to-screen adaptation as an interactive iPad app, while Lost and Found, the story of a boy's adventure with a penguin, became a BAFTA Award-winning short film.
''There's a number of authors who don't agree that a book should necessarily be turned into an app,'' Jeffers says. ''I can see that point but I don't necessarily agree with it. What really interested me was not just creating a replication but adding something to the book. I'm always wary of what I call the Mariah Carey syndrome - just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. I think a lot of apps have missed the point. You can't force every book into an app, but with Heart and the Bottle, the interactivity adds to the story in interesting ways.''
Jeffers' latest book, The Hueys in the New Jumper, has a completely different feel from his earlier works. Visually, it's more pared back. Pitched at a slightly younger audience (four and up), it's about a group of egg-shaped creatures who pride themselves on looking the same, until one Huey decides to knit himself a jumper.
''I've taken a different direction with this book, but it's all part of a longer path. I get bored very easily, so I could never be satisfied making versions of the same thing over and over.''
Jeffers says that publishers might occasionally suggest a book explore similar territory to previous bestsellers, but adds: ''I've had battles but over the years I've learnt to listen and they've learnt that I'm always right.''
Recently, along with Quentin Blake, Helen Oxenbury, Emma Chichester Clark and Chris Riddell, Jeffers took part in a project to help celebrate the 70th anniversary of Enid Blyton's Famous Five series by designing a new jacket for the 1942 classic Five Go to Smuggler's Top. A percentage from each of the books sold supports the House of Illustrations in London, the world's first museum dedicated to illustration.
Jeffers has ''tonnes'' of ideas and is looking forward to finding out which one will turn into the next book.
''There's definitely days when things aren't working,'' he says. ''It's not on tap, that's for sure. When that happens, I put up a shelf or reorganise my desk or something. Then there's days where you can do no wrong, but those days don't happen nearly enough.''
■The Hueys in the New Jumper is published by HarperCollinsat $24.95.