"Phantom Tollbooth" creators return with "The Odious Ogre"

"Phantom Tollbooth" fans rejoice: After 50 years, Juster and Feiffer have a new book.

From tollbooths to ogres: the creative team behind a children's book classic rides again.

Barring any last-second entries by J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins's “Mockingjay” will likely turn out to be the biggest young adult book of the year. But for lovers of classic children's literature, this month brought an even better reason to celebrate: a new book by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer.

How big a deal is this? This is better than Harry Potter 8 would be. This is like Bill Watterson deciding that he really missed being a cartoonist after all, causing Calvin & Hobbes fans to take to their sleds with joy. This is like George Lucas realizing that one trilogy wasn't enough to contain the Skywalker saga and… oh, wait.

For those of you wondering how a tollbooth could possibly be beloved (What's next, "The Adorable Root Canal"?), allow me to explain. Roughly 50 years ago, Juster, apparently in a fit of procrastination, wrote “The Phantom Tollbooth,” about a bored boy named Milo and a Watchdog named Tock. It combines the kind of lunatic wordplay not often found outside “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” with a gentle push to get out there and engage with life. Getting to read your child “The Phantom Tollbooth” is one of the great pleasures of parenthood.

Juster's downstairs neighbor was Feiffer, and, as Juster tells National Public Radio, he would take Feiffer the chapters to illustrate as he finished them. The result is one of those titles – like “The Wind in the Willows,” “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird – that make you feel good just to say the name.

The author and illustrator, not being ones to let the grass grow beneath them, have decided that five decades is long enough to wait for another collaboration.

As NPR's Liane Hansen asked Juster and Feiffer: “What took you so long?”

Juster tells her he's been working on “The Odious Ogre” off and on for more than 30 years. The picture book isn't a sequel or an authorized affair ginned up to prolong the copyrights on Milo and Tock. It's a new work, about a really big, really cranky guy and the girl who refuses to be scared of him. (And no, he isn't named Shrek.)

Any plans for more collaborations?

“Norton's doing a lot push-ups, I'm on a diet, and who knows?” the octogenarian Feiffer tells Hansen.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the bookstore.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews children's fiction for the Monitor.

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