Fifty years ago, Norton Juster was pacing his second-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights, unsure that the manuscript he was working on--his first--would ever be published, much less become a classic of children’s literature. His roommate was his first reader, who also voluntarily sketched some pictures to go with Juster’s story.
The roommate was Jules Feiffer. The manuscript was The Phantom Tollbooth.
Now, a half century later, these veterans--stints in the military conspired to bring both to Brooklyn in the late 1950s--are collaborating on a new picture book, The Odious Ogre for Michael di Capua Books at Scholastic, due out in fall 2010.
“I have thought longingly about whether we could arrange a reunion after all these years,” said di Capua, who over the decades came to edit the work of both men, including Juster’s most recent picture books: The Hello, Goodbye Window, which won the 2006 Caldecott Medal for illustrator Chris Raschka, and its sequel, Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie.
Those books, “both regularly described as 'sweet,’ ” as di Capua puts it, were not a good match for Feiffer’s scratchy artwork and urbane sensibility. “But this story about the ogre is extremely witty and has a certain black humor to it,” di Capua said. The ogre, for instance, has an impressive vocabulary, “due mainly to having inadvertently swallowed a large dictionary while consuming the head librarian in one of the nearby towns.”
“I knew dead certain Jules was going to want to illustrate it,” di Capua said.
He was right. Now nearly finished with the artwork, Feiffer reports he’s had a blast. “The one thing I will say is that, in relation to the other characters, he is possibly the biggest ogre in captivity,” Feiffer said. “He was great fun to draw, though--more fun for me than for the ogre.”
Serendipity in Brooklyn Heights
Dwight Eisenhower was president when Feiffer and Juster, both now 80, first met. Fresh from postings to Morocco and Newfoundland, Juster was serving out his tour of duty as a civil engineer with the Mobile Construction Battalion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He didn’t want to live on base so he combed the streets of Brooklyn Heights until he found a tiny basement apartment and a landlady willing to take his $77.10 housing allowance as the monthly rent.
Feiffer’s apartment was on the third floor. He had just completed his service to the Army. The two met taking out the garbage.
When the landlady ended their leases so she could renovate, the two moved together to a “seedy duplex” a little further south. This time Juster took the top floor. “I’d be pacing, annoying the hell out of [Feiffer], so he’d come upstairs to see what I was writing,” Juster recalls. “Then he drew sketches to go with the story. They were unbelievably good.”
Feiffer also had a connection: a girlfriend willing to pass the manuscript--and Feiffer’s sketches--to an editor she knew. That editor was Jason Epstein, then in charge of Random House’s Looking Glass Library, reprints of classic English children’s books. He published The Phantom Tollbooth in 1961; it has gone on to sell a combined 3.3 million copies.
“I had no idea when I wrote it that it would last more than 15 minutes,” said Juster, who wrote two more books but turned the majority of his attention to designing buildings. Trained as an architect, he spent the next 30 years drawing blueprints for schools, fire stations, and perhaps most famously, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, near Juster’s home in western Massachusetts. “It’s hard for people to understand you can do more than one thing well,” he says.
Feiffer’s career moved away from children’s books before it, too, came full circle. “Norton went into architecture and I started the weekly comic, trying to overthrow the government,” he said.
Feiffer’s comic strip in the Village Voice ended its run in 2000, but di Capua says at least one element of The Odious Ogre recalls it. Though the ogre is “extraordinarily large, exceedingly ugly, unusually angry, constantly hungry, and absolutely merciless,” the girl he encounters, working in her cottage garden is unfazed by his brutishness. “She’s another manifestation of Jules’s dancer,” di Capua said. Only, somehow, she’s better. “Not that I’m knocking his earlier work,” he added, “but there’s a certain freedom that’s noticeably on a higher level. You can tell he’s having a great time.”
Right again, Feiffer said, who did the illustrations in pen and ink brush with colored markers, gouache “and anything else I could think of. It’s my new way of working, which I love.”
In fact, he and Juster are already planning their next joint maneuver, he claims. “Watch for The Phantom Ogre, or maybe The Odious Tollbooth--coming in 2060.”