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Meanwhile Back on Earth

Authored by Oliver Jeffers
Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Published by Harper Collins

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Meanwhile Back on Earth is the third picture book by Oliver Jeffers in which he explores aspects of life on our planet. Here We Are Notes for Living on Planet Earth was written for his son, followed in 2020 by What We’ll Build – Plans for Our Together Future written for his daughter. Meanwhile Back on Earth is dedicated to both of his children, ‘Future keepers of the peace (I hope)’. This is a book which explores human conflict over time and asks its young readers to consider each other, and peace. In the front matter, Jeffers explains his inspiration: ‘from repeatedly trying to explain the history and the geography of the Northern Ireland conflict to smart people, who neither knew, nor really cared about it.’ 

The story starts with a very ordinary scene – a father calling his children down the stairs. They wave goodbye to their mother and head off, leaving the city behind them. Then a rather ordinary argument ensues between the brother and sister in the back of the car over whose side is whose. Looking closely at the images allows the reader to see dad’s frustration, and the view from the rear-view mirror becomes hugely important. The narrator invites the family to put on their space helmets and really consider SPACE. As the family drive to each planet, real distances and speeds are calculated at 37 miles per hour. When they arrive at each destination, the rear-view mirror allows the reader to see what was happening on Earth at the same point backwards in time. The scenes of conflict revealed take place around the world and through time, and include World War Two, The American War of Independence and the Ice Age.

This picture book deals with important themes, but Jeffers’ informal style and lively wit make this a hugely pleasurable exploration, and this is the strength of this brilliant book. If the reader looks closely, they will notice the father says, ‘Yes please…’ when he is invited to take the detour into space; the children wear headphones over their space helmets and when travelling along Saturn’s rings the family shout, ‘Weeeeeeeeeeeeeee.’ Jeffers uses comic asides, cartoon illustrations and a rich colour palette to appeal to his audience. Factual information is provided in the book’s endpapers.

This is a powerful and thought-provoking book, suitable for children of all ages. The strong subject matter requires a guiding hand and would prompt rich discussion between teachers and children in school or between parents and carers and children at home. Meanwhile Back on Earth is a book to return to again and again.