By Barry Didcock

IF you're the parent of a child born this century you either know all about Oliver Jeffers already, or you're about to find out. After a decade or so of prize-winning forays into the bestseller lists, the amiable, Belfast-born, New York-based writer and illustrator is one of the stars of the genre, his quirky visuals now as likely to grace a Starbucks advert or a U2 video as the books which brought him acclaim in the first place.

It's too early to say how a generation's imaginations will be shaped by opening lines like “Wilfred owned a moose” or “Once there was a boy and one day he found a penguin at his door”. But not too early to view the 39-year-old as heir to writer-illustrator greats such as Maurice Sendak, John Burningham, Eric Carle and Judith Kerr.

His inimitable graphic style is one reason for his popularity. But the purchase he achieves on young imaginations comes from somewhere else: the sense of oddness, otherness, isolation and melancholy that suffuse his stories.

“I grew up with three brothers so maybe it's wishful thinking that I lived in an isolated world,” he laughs. “But I've never really dug that deep to figure out where it comes from.”

He admits, however, that growing up in Belfast during the Troubles did have an effect on his world view. “I had a very happy, normal upbringing but there was a backdrop of violence, a sort of dichotomy of two different perspectives, two different sides effectively. Maybe there's a lack of sweetness in the books because it never sat right, it felt unnatural.”

But, rare among those who achieve ubiquity in their field, Jeffers continues to push in directions both expected and unexpected. He maintains a parallel career as a painter, has dipped into film and video work and, though his latest project is aimed at children, it has seen him collaborate with an artist whose work is very much outside the genre: typographical artist Sam Winston.

Together he and Jeffers have created A Child Of Books. Five years in the making, its publisher Walker Books calls it a manifesto for reading, though Jeffers is quick to disavow any political intent.

“It's not like Sam and I sat down and said 'There's a very important message we need to convey. What's the best way to put that message across?'. It's more that we both feel very strongly about this particular thing,” he explains. “We both have a love of storytelling and literature and that ultimately came to be the most obvious thing that connected both of our worlds.”

See it, then, as an homage to reading and to the imaginative inner life rather than a call to arms or a broadside against all things digital and screen-based. In fact Jeffers is unfazed by the rise of the iPad and confident too that printed words and images have a future.

“I think that there was a worry that reading [as an activity] was slipping and there was a fear that the interaction between parent and child would give way to the presence of an iPad. But I don't think that's happening. I don't think you can really replace the book. It's been around for a thousand years and it's not going to go anywhere.”

Jeffers's new work tells the story of a girl taking a boy on a journey through a world of stories. She is the titular child of books and her aim is to inspire her companion to both read stories and create them. Together they cross seas of words, climb mountains of make-believe, venture into forests of fairy tales and sleep in clouds of song.

Jeffers draws the travellers, Winston uses text from classic children's novels to create land-, city-, sea- and even moonscapes, sometimes layered densely to make an inky monster, other times laid like filigree to suggest tree branches or powdery snow.

The sole adult depicted, cut off from the world of stories, sits reading a paper called Serious Stuff. But as the companions venture through a tunnel on a boat, you can make out words from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. As a monster peers round the side of a castle, you see it's made up of lines from Dracula and Frankenstein. As the travellers yell into space, words from Jules Verne's All Around The Moon form the surface of their planet.

Adding gravity of a different sort are two title page quotations. The first – “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms” – is from The Speed Of Darkness by American poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser. The second, more sombre, is from Primo Levi's concentration camp memoir, If This Is A Man.

“They're both about the importance of storytelling,” says Jeffers. “Sam and I both believe in the importance of that and how it can become one of the most important parts of your identity: the stories you tell, the stories you're told, and the stories told about you.”

Much of the work took place in Jeffers's spacious Brooklyn studio. It's from there that he also maintains a parallel career as an artist, the occupation which took him into children's books in the first place when he realised that a series of paintings he had made were actually connected.

“Once I'd made this mental leap, that the individual images I was making weren't actually disconnected at all but were part of a longer story with a beginning and a middle and an end, that was the basis of [first book] How To Catch A Star.”

Today, Jeffers keeps the painting and the book writing separate. Indeed his current project smacks more of Turner Prize-style conceptual art than it does children's illustrations. It began some years ago when he started making art using science as a prism. His intention, he says, was to find “another way of looking at the world, a kind of clinical, unemotional way as opposed to the artistic way in which you can see things emotionally and with feeling.”

He made paintings which utilised mathematical symbols and then began “messing around” with other ideas from physics and quantum mechanics, such as the uncertainty principle and the theory of hidden variables. He started to make portraits then obscure them so that while the image of the sitter was still there, it couldn't be seen. When someone showed him a photograph of one of these portraits a year later, he realised that his memory of it had completely changed. It was a Eureka! moment.

“I realised that something very interesting was happening,” he says. “So I've been experimenting and playing with that ever since ¬- how human memory is a fallible thing. Again, going back to the storytelling, it's probably one of the most important parts of our identity.”

Imagination fired, he embarked on what he calls his Dipped Paintings, portraits of friends or acquaintances which he paints over a period of weeks or months and then obscures by dipping them in, say, vivid pink or blue paint, though not so fully that the top of a head and some eyebrows aren't still visible. Before that, however, there is what he calls “a performance”.

“I invite some people along to see the painting, though they're not allowed to bring a camera. They just have to remember what they see and I interview them about that afterwards. So the whole thing is about memory and storytelling.”

In truth, the Turner Prize judges are unlikely to come knocking on Oliver Jeffers's door, though he is planning a major gallery exhibition for the Dipped Paintings which will include the interviews and “performance artefacts”.

So ultimately what is he: children's author or artist?

“I don't know,” he says. “I do both. And I am both. And neither.”

Something tells me that's as straight an answer as we're ever likely to get.

A Child Of Books is published by Walker Books, £12.99, on September 1