You may know Jules Feiffer best for illustrating The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, but this Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for The Village Voice has an illustrious and staggeringly impressive writing career of his own. Feiffer’s newest book, Rupert Can Dance, tells the story of a young dancer named Mandy and her cat, Rupert, who likes to slip into her dancing shoes while she’s asleep. Here, Feiffer chats with Bookish about trailblazing the graphic novel, the importance of winning readers’ trust, and how writing and illustrating can feel like making a movie.
Bookish: You are best known for illustrating Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, but you have written and drawn works across a broad range of genres. What draws you to children’s books in particular?
Jules Feiffer: When I did The Phantom Tollbooth, I had no children, and I thought that was the one and only time I’d do a kids’ book because I was more interested in the weekly comic strip I was doing in The Village Voice. After becoming a father, I became more interested in kids. In particular, in the 1990s, I had an idea for a children’s novel about a boy cartoonist, based on my own childhood, called The Man in the Ceiling. Having done that, I fell in love with the form and began working in kids’ books almost exclusively outside of the comic strip.
Bookish: You won a Pulitzer Prize for your cartoons in The Village Voice. How different from drawing and writing a comic strip is writing and illustrating a children’s book?
JF: I’ve worked in all sorts of forms. Plays, screenplays—I don’t know how other people do it, but I just fall in love with the forms that I liked as a kid. I naturally adapt myself; I don’t have to think hard in terms of switching from one to another. If it’s a kids’ book, it’s a kids’ book. If it’s a graphic novel, I make that automatic adjustment. Some internal button gets pushed, and my brain goes to work in a different mode.
Bookish: In Rupert Can Dance, the reader meets a young girl named Mandy and her dancing cat, Rupert. Were these characters based on or inspired by anyone you know?
JF: I don’t really know any dancing cats. Mandy is just an extension of the dancer character I’ve been drawing on a regular basis since 1957.
Bookish: What do you hope your young reader takes away from this book?
JF: I’ve never thought in those terms. I’ve never thought about what the reader is going to get other than a sense of pleasure and comradeship. When I read books as a kid, the books became sort of best friends that I didn’t really have in the outside world. The books gave me a sense of connection and almost became an “internet” for me, in way that no real family or friends ever were.
What I hope to do for the young reader is to engage that sense of intimacy where they trust the book, trust the author, trust the characters. It makes them feel joined in a new way with the world they live in.
Bookish: Interestingly, the dialogue in this book appears in the illustrations instead of in the main text of the book (sort of like in a comic strip). Why did you decide to lay the pages out this way?
JF: It comes with the form. There seemed to be one way of writing it, and I wrote it the way it had to be done. I didn’t think there was a choice here. Once I start work on a book, the book dictates to me how it should be. The book tells me how it wants to go, and I just follow orders.
Bookish: Your book Tantrum is considered one of the first-ever graphic novels. What inspired you to think outside of the box and experiment with a new art form?
JF: I was about to be 50 years old, and I had always promised myself that I wanted to do a novel in cartoon form by the time I was 50. The term “graphic novel” had not yet come into vogue. I began thinking of a story that would be a lengthy version of my Voice comic strip, and Tantrum became that story. It’s very much an extension of the sort of thing I was doing in the Voice, but in an extended and narrative form.
Bookish: Why do you think illustrations are such an important part of children’s books?
JF: I’ve been a cartoonist all my life. I’m particularly addicted to the comic strip form, which got into me from the time I was six or seven. There is something terribly seductive about combining words and pictures into one form so that the reader isn’t really conscious of whether they are reading or looking—it becomes one. I work to tell a story not unlike what one sees in film, but I’m the screenwriter and the production designer and the director.
In the end, it’s all about storytelling—how you get it across to the reader, what feelings you want to evoke, and how you connect one picture to the next so that there is a flow created that the reader is not aware of. But I’m in the middle of trying to stage manage it so the reader isn’t aware of the sleight of hand, the magic act.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite illustration in this book?
JF: I think my favorite illustration in Rupert Can Dance is the dancing act in the last six pages of the book. The book explodes into this wonderful pas de deux.
Bookish: Are there any children’s book authors and illustrators you’re particularly inspired by?
JF: There are a whole bunch of them. Edward Ardizzone, Don Freeman. Most particularly, my friend Maurice Sendak: Everyone owes him a debt of gratitude. James Marshall, Garth Williams. These are the people who use words and pictures brilliantly.
There are a number of excellent illustrators and painters who can’t do kids’ books. What you see are beautiful pictures that have little or nothing to do with the story. However beautiful the pictures, they don’t interest me. I just see beautiful ego trips.
Bookish: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
JF: I’ve found myself so in love with the idea of the graphic novel, specifically the experience I had doing Kill My Mother, that it’s now becoming a trilogy. I’ve written the second, which is a prequel, which takes place two years before Kill My Mother, in 1931. It shows the backstory to what launchesKill My Mother. There will be a third book, which takes us into the era of the Hollywood blacklist.
I’m also fooling around with another Rupert story. I love the Rupert and Mandy characters, and I want to use them again.
Jules Feiffer has won a number of prizes for his cartoons, plays, and screenplays, including the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. His books for children include The Man in the Ceiling and Bark, George. He illustrated Norton Juster’s children’s classic, The Phantom Tollbooth.
Images courtesy of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.