September 2010

Norton Juster

The octogenarians and the ogre
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Take two insanely talented (and wry) octogenarians, throw in decades of combined artistic skill and add one previous collaboration for good measure. The result—50 years in the making—is The Odious Ogre, a new fairy tale picture book written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer.

It’s their first professional reunion since their classic and revered children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, was first published in 1961. The long gap in collaboration didn’t come about because the two artists lost touch. Feiffer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, says simply that an opportunity never presented itself for the duo to work together, until now.

“This one seemed absolutely right for me,” he says.

When readers meet the Ogre, he is doing what ogres typically do—rampaging through a village and terrorizing innocent citizens (many of whom—including the local librarian!—eventually get eaten). This is one mean, merciless, gnarly and BIG galumph of an ogre.

“My ambition was to do the biggest ogre in the history of children’s books and move him around a lot,” Feiffer says. “I just looked up ogres from other books and made notes . . . [and] played around with the character.”

“Illustrating a kids’ book is a little like being the director of a play or movie. . . . What is going to make the best story? What are they wearing, what’s their body language? Accidentally I hit on one I want.”

In fact, readers learn much about the Ogre through Feiffer’s watercolor brush stroke and colored marker illustrations. “I worked in forms I haven’t worked with before,” he says. “The whole thing was like playing in a sandbox.”

While readers do get a sense of the Ogre’s demeanor immediately through his carriage, colors and sheer size, they never see his face until almost halfway through the book. That, Feiffer says, was intentional.

“I didn’t want to give away the Ogre’s look on the cover,” he says. “There were endless initial covers.” The final one, designed by Steve Scott, simply features the enormous hand of the Ogre dangling a frantic villager.

Likewise in the story’s text, Juster fully realizes this ogre’s personality—he may be nasty, but nonetheless, he’s surprisingly articulate. In his own language, the nameless Ogre calls himself, “invulnerable, impregnable, insuperable, indefatigable, insurmountable.”

The Ogre’s impressive vocabulary continues throughout the book, something Juster was very cognizant of. “We sort of underestimate kids,” he says. “Kids love words.”

“Even as a kid, I would read books that were well beyond what I could understand. . . . It was almost like you were reading the lyrics to a song,” Juster says. “It’s not just a love of language. It’s a connection to the language of the world.”

Juster says the character of the Ogre had been stirring in his mind for about 20 years. “I don’t know where it came from. It just intrigued me.”

He did, however, provide some clues to the Ogre’s possible conception. At age 10, Juster attended summer camp and was berated and “beaten up” by the “bunk bully.” When the bully issued a challenge, “I felt so humiliated,” Juster recalls.

“He proceeded to wipe up the whole place with me; it was not one of those happy ending things.” Juster says he later started thinking about what would happen if you opposed the bully—and a germ of an odious ogre may have been subliminally hatched.

As the Ogre continues on his rampages, he encounters a young lass who, oblivious to the Ogre’s apparent reputation, doesn’t fear him. Rather, she is the first of the villagers to show him kindness—even offering him tea and muffins.

Flummoxed, the Ogre puts on his action-packed dance of terror—which is spectacularly captured on a wordless double spread. Feiffer was especially pleased with these illustrations, since he could draw on his skills used in his decades of drawing cartoons for The Village Voice.

“As a lifelong illustrator of dancers, it was irresistible—a macho ballet,” he says.

Exhausted and overwhelmed by the lass’ response, the Ogre is “confounded, overcome, and undone.” The tale ends with a satisfying (to some) and thought-provoking (to all) twist.

“What is in that story is what you find in it,” Juster says. “There is no one way, there is no lesson; there is no moral that doesn’t occur to you.”

All those years ago, Juster and Feiffer’s collaboration on The Phantom Tollbooth was a bit of an accident. The two native New Yorkers, then in their 30s, were neighboring apartment dwellers in Brooklyn Heights, and they met, interestingly enough, taking out the trash.

Through a series of serendipitous events, Juster’s manuscript and Feiffer’s sketches made it to a publisher (Random House)—and the book about Milo and his fantastic tollbooth journey went on to sell more than three million copies and was later made into a film.

Juster, a trained architect, says writing children’s books was a “total accident” for him, and he says he and Feiffer were “astounded” by the novel’s success. “You just have to do what you think is right,” he says.

Feiffer initially had no interest in children’s books. When he did Phantom Tollbooth, he says, he was “simply illustrating a children’s book for a friend.”

“If I didn’t have three children, there would have been no children’s books,” says Feiffer, who has written and illustrated several children’s books, including Bark, George.

“It didn’t mean anything to me until I had kids of my own and began making up stories for them . . . and began to realize what an important form this is.”

For Odious Ogre, the pairing seemed obvious, especially to editor Michael di Capua, who has edited both men’s work over the years—including Juster’s first picture book, The Hello, Goodbye Window. The book won the 2006 Caldecott Medal for illustrator Chris Raschka.

Juster says that although he had ideas for what the Ogre might looks like, he trusted his good friend Feiffer to come through with the perfect embodiment of the character.

“You never have a precise idea,” Juster says. “You have sort of a series of abstractions in your head. What you look for is the spirit of it.”

And that’s what Feiffer delivered even though the duo never worked in direct contact with each other; rather, they worked through their editor. “We went back and forth that way,” Feiffer says.

Now both in their early 80s, Juster and Feiffer remain engaged in work—although Juster does admit to “doing a lot of loafing” these days.

Juster, who is known for his work as an architect on such projects as the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts, has more children’s books in the works, including a reissue of his Alberic the Wise.

Feiffer, also a noted playwright and screenwriter, teaches humor writing at Stony Brook Southhampton and says, “My schedule is now more busy than it ever has been.” Having just completed illustrating another book, he will soon embark on a graphic novel and is considering doing another play.

Both men joke that perhaps in another 50 years they’ll team up again—but who knows what the project will be. What they do know is that it will boil down to the key element that has made their previous collaboration—and hopefully this new one—successful.

As Juster notes, “It’s all about storytelling, in the pictures and the art.”

Get the Book

The Odious Ogre

The Odious Ogre

By Norton Juster
Michael di Capua/Scholastic
ISBN 9780545162029

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