Beyond Expectations: when a writer and an illustrator collaborate

“There are no wrong roads to anywhere.”

-Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

 

Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth, 1961) is really an Architect. As the story goes, Juster won a Ford Foundation grant to write a grown-up, architecture book about urban perception, but ended up penning The Tollbooth instead. He shared drafts with his upstairs neighbor, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and the two ended up partnering on the book.

Last weekend was homecoming weekend at the University of Pennsylvania, where I got my Masters in Landscape Architecture, and where Juster completed his architecture studies in 1953. In honor of the weekend Penn’s School of Design invited alumni to a screening of the documentary film The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations.

Part animation, part comedy and part buddy film, Beyond Expectations is filled with the two men’s smart conversation, as well as interview chat with historian and critic Leonard Marcus, author/illustrator Eric Carle (who’s Museum of Picture Book Art Juster designed), New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (read him on the Toolbooth here), actor David Hyde Pierce (the inimitable reader of the audio book version), and a trip of un-named kids. Throughout, Juster and Feiffer’s conversation flows with the push and pull of an old married couple’s: their stories and quips unfold with hilarity and impeccable timing — and a beautifully rich sense of shared history.

Post-screening, Juster was joined on a panel by the film’s director, Hannah Jayanti and (at Penn for the second time in as many weeks) Leonard Marcus, who’s The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth was released in 2011 in honor of the book’s 50th Anniversary. At some point in the discussion, Juster responded to a question about how his architectural education influenced his approach to writing by describing how, in design school, you learn a method of breaking down and working through a design problem from many angles — as opposed to simply looking for an answer. His response shared a thread with one common read of The Phantom Tollbooth as a paean to the virtues of a liberal arts education. The book is very much about the journey, not the destination, and Juster is clear about his distaste for educational approaches that assume there is one right way of doing things.

The film and subsequent conversation also conveyed a powerful sense of both the idea and the fact of an intense, working relationship between author and illustrator. The physicality of the illustrations’ relations to the text, as well as the import of the geographic proximity of the two neighbors as they worked — are all captured sweetly in the film’s affecting animated sequences.

Juster and Feiffer clearly have tremendous respect for one another, and at the same time harbor no delusions about each other’s imperfections — instead finding real joy and humor in them.

WhetherMan

Feiffer’s illustration of The Whether Man — based on Juster

In an interview with Alex Stadler at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2011 that I since came across, Juster describes his and Feiffer’s dynamic as they worked on the book saying,

It developed into a kind of a game where he would try to subvert the illustrations and I would try to make things he couldn’t draw. Near the end there’s one group of demons called the ‘Triple Demons of Compromise’, which I invented just for him. One is short and fat, one is tall and thin, and the third is exactly like the other two.

That most illustrators and authors don’t collaborate directly is something of a surprise to most people outside the industry. (At some point during the film, one of the interviewees — I forget who — quips that editors nowadays don’t let the illustrators and authors of picture books work together because they need to make sure that they (the editors) still have something to do.)

It’s hard to talk about it from the position of never having published a picture book. But seeing a dynamic like Juster and Feiffer’s, I wonder about the opportunities missed by the full separation of the jobs — and the personalities. At the 2014 Winter SCBWI conference in New York during a picture book panel discussion, either Peter Brown or Oliver Jeffers — again, I can’t remember which — lobbied gently for more openings in this relationship. I remember being struck that the comment was a real push against the tide. (In my notes from that panel discussion I did find the words of editor and moderator Arthur Levine, who, on the subject of author-illustrator collaboration, declared “Fits are entitled to be thrown,”  implying that the potential for creative conflict and drama might be a deterrent for editors.)

There are contemporary pairings that seem possibly to defy the preferred order — like Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka, or Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett. (Anyone have any good links or references that talk non-PR-ish-ly about the nature of those partnerships?) And Ursula Nordstrom’s letters, compiled and edited by Marcus in Dear Genius, offer plenty of reminders that separation wasn’t always the norm, feeding — like the Sendak in the Sixties show — nostalgia for that great, bygone era in children’s book publishing.

 

The Soundkeeper

The Soundkeeper

One last, wonderful quote from The Phantom Tollbooth — which I can’t resist sharing:

 “Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are sounds? But sadly enough, no one pays attention to them these days. Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”

                                                                                                                            -The Soundkeeper

Despite silence, there is still so much for the senses to take in in the moments described and, yet, words fail to really capture them. That Juster is both a synesthete and a great lover of language and word play gives special poignancy to this particular passage. And, too, it speaks aptly to our era of relentless sensory onslaught.

3 comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, hmmm! Sounds like an amazing talk movie and panel, would have liked to be there myself! (Coincidentally, my niece is a freshman in the Penn State architecture undergrad program.)

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