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Oliver Jeffers' new picture book is a different kind of ghost story


On your next walk, look around. No doubt, you will notice the influx of ghosts on front doors, breezing from branches, peeking from behind a bush. But what if there are ghosts in the house? What if you sense them, but you're not quite sure they're there? Well, that is the question at the heart of a new picture book illustrated and written by Oliver Jeffers. It's called "There's A Ghost In This House." And he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.


MCCAMMON: So this is not a straight ahead picture book. And for people who haven't seen it yet, I wonder if you could just, first, describe the images in this book and the way that the ghosts appear on these sort of translucent pages.

JEFFERS: It's definitely a book that, to me, that relishes the physical objects, the tactile nature of books themselves. So what you're looking at is a series of old photographs that have been reused from, you know, old, like, furniture catalogs or architectural reference books, basically lots of empty rooms. And in those empty rooms, I painted this little girl character who's walking around. And she's bright-green and, like, fluorescent yellow, and she's looking for a ghost. Those rooms are always on the left-hand side, and on the right is always the words of what she is saying to us, the viewer. In between, there is a sheet of tracing paper. But as you turn the shaded tracing paper, you realize that there is white ink printed on that tracing paper, and that's the ghost. And you then lay the ghost into the scene.

MCCAMMON: And how did that idea - that concept - come to you?

JEFFERS: Really, from kind of multiple different facets. I have one foot in the fine art world, and something I've been doing for a long time is playing about with old fine paintings or book covers - things that look like they're the background of something - and then painting something into it. And I've also always enjoyed painting ghosts, and especially ghosts into empty rooms. There's just something really satisfying about it. You know, if you find this really old, sort of detailed, opulent, even kind of crumbling old room, and then you just paint that classic simple ghost shape into it, it's just very pleasing. And then a game I would play with my kids and some of my friends' kids is you can paint a ghost onto a sheet of tracing paper and you can move it about the room yourself. But then the story or the game of how it unfolds is sort of a whole separate conversation. And like any idea, it's the amalgamation of lots of little things coming together.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, you mentioned the pictures. That's one of the things I loved about this book. It reminded me of being a child and, you know, sort of flipping through coffee table books with these tiny little captions at the bottom of different photos. And, you know, the setting of this book, naturally, is an old house built in 1760. And the book kind of merges those historic photos with your original artwork. As you move through the pages, you're learning little details about the house and, as you say, seeing furniture and things like that. Why did you decide to set it up that way?

JEFFERS: Well, it's just fun. I mean, there's no kind of - there is no real magic to it. It's pretty obvious how this is done. It's taking these old photographs, painting something into it and then just the ability that you, as the viewer, can kind of control the speed at which it happens. And also, the first time - the first couple of times the ghost appears, it's so subtle that you don't even really notice it. So then when it becomes obvious, what I've noticed people tending to do is, like, wait - was it there the whole time? - and then kind of go back to the start and start again. It was like, oh, yeah, there it is at the top of the stairs. It's simple. It's - kids will be able to see how it's done. And it's - part of it - I think part of it is just good fun, which is not an obvious thing to say about a ghost book, really.

MCCAMMON: OK, I personally am disinclined to believe in things like ghosts. And yet, I know several people whom I really respect who swear they've seen them. So I want to ask you, do you believe in ghosts?

JEFFERS: Well, I think the best way to put it is this - I believe that one of the basic principles of science is that energy cannot be destroyed; it can only be replaced. And, you know, if we are effectively - you know, when you talk about somebody has good energy, we are a ball of energy as living beings. So I'm not closed to the idea of it. You know, that why people are afraid of ghosts and both fascinated by them has intrigued me since I really got into this. And I think it's that fear of the unknown is where the fear comes from. But then why are people so fascinated? And I think it's this - the other end of the spectrum in that we love the idea that things don't just end - you know, there's more to this one little brief spark of life that we get. And so it's - we're sort of caught in that middle zone, so ghosts are both fascinating and terrifying.

MCCAMMON: There's a lot in here that the reader sees but the main character can't see. And I wonder about that choice. I mean, what kind of experience do you want the readers, I assume mostly children, to have while they're reading this book?

JEFFERS: In British and Irish culture, especially come, you know, around Christmas, there's a thing called pantomimes. And I don't know if - I haven't really heard of them too much in the U.S., but it's this classic - you know, the character on stage. It's for kids' theater. The character on stage is looking for someone. They keep hiding. And the kids are like, it's behind you. And, you know, everybody's going crazy and is like, why can't you see it? It's right there. And that - just the idea of playing with something so obvious. And when I was testing this book on some of my - the young people in my life, they started doing something that I hadn't really predicted, which is they would say, no, wait, don't turn the page yet. We want to guess where the ghost is going to be. And so they started making up their own games within it. And I really did love that. But some of the rooms, if you remove the girl character and these ghosts, they're actually really - they're kind of creepy. You know, there's a darkness to some of this. And I seem to have got away with putting a ghost appearing over the shoulder of somebody in a bathroom mirror, which is about one of the most frightening things I can imagine. But it's funny, and I've sort of found a way to, like, kind of - yeah - take the creepiness of these empty rooms filled with ghosts. It was always something that fascinated me when I was a kid. I can't watch scary films at all, but the - you would walk past old, abandoned houses and just imagining that there might be ghosts in there, kind of walking around. And then you get the thing - you say, well, what do they do all day? You know, they just sort of are waiting for something to happen, so maybe that's what's happening is they're playing a game with this girl.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned you can't watch scary movies. I mean, obviously, there is a scariness to Halloween. Do you find yourself inspired by other playful Halloween stories?

JEFFERS: I've come to love Halloween in a big way. We didn't really celebrate it - well, we did celebrate it a little bit, but it wasn't a huge deal in Belfast when we were growing up. You had to carve a turnip. And I don't know if you've ever tried to carve a turnip. You kind of need a hammer and a chisel. It's really, really difficult.

MCCAMMON: Is that instead of carving pumpkins? Because, you know, that's what we do here.

JEFFERS: Yeah because we didn't have pumpkins. The first time I ever saw a pumpkin with my own eyes, I was in my 20s. You get them more commonly now. But Halloween is actually more Irish than St. Patrick's Day because St. Patrick's sort of was imported back to Ireland by the New York Irish as a show of force. But Halloween is this ancient Celtic pagan festival, where you would light a bonfire on All Hallows' Eve, and everybody would bring an ember from the bonfire home. And the only way they could think to transport it was in this carved-out turnip, so that they wouldn't burn anything and it wouldn't go out. And when they got - when the Irish got to the new land - to the Americas - they couldn't find any turnips and did find pumpkins and found they were infinitely easier to carve.

MCCAMMON: That's Oliver Jeffers. His latest picture book is "There's A Ghost In This House."

Thanks so much for talking with me.

JEFFERS: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAUHAUS SONG, "BELA LUGOSI'S DEAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Justine Kenin