There is a certain poignancy to reading "The Odious Ogre." Norton Juster, the writer, and Jules Feiffer, the illustrator, jointly created "The Phantom Tollbooth" five decades ago, and in doing so, created one of the most perfect children's books in history. Juster's copy and Feiffer's illustrations fit seamlessly together--so seamlessly that you'd think the two men shared the same brain. Words and pictures alike shared a wry, slightly ironic yet simultaneously very earnest sensibility and complemented each other perfectly. Among children's book geniuses, only Dr. Seuss was able to marry words and pictures as effectively. Their work combined to form what is truly a work of wonder--a very New York-Jewish magical allegory, the unmistakable subtext of which is, "Learning stuff is cool," without even a hint of preachiness, self-righteousness, or sanctimoniousness. Kids can see right through that and instinctively despise it, but no one in his or her right mind has ever despised "The Phantom Tollbooth."
The poignancy of reading "The Odious Ogre" comes in when you wonder why it took these two guys fifty years to do another book. Now, at (what is hopefully not) the twilight of their lives, I suppose they figured, "Well, we did one classic. Maybe we'd better knock out another one before it's too late." I'm glad they did, but I wish they'd done a lot more together.
"The Odious Ogre" is lush where "The Phantom Tollbooth" is spare. Juster's language is deliriously self-indulgent ("I am invulnerable, impregnable, insuperable, indefatigable, insurmountable!" the ogre bellows at one point), perhaps a little too much so for younger readers (but if read aloud with the right gusto, they won't notice it). And Feiffer's trademark skinny line has been fleshed out with eye-tickling and visually satisfying watercolors. It's a beauty to look at, and beautiful to read.
But best of all, "The Odious Ogre" retains the knowing, savvy, and ever so slightly subversive morality of "Tollbooth." People are easily cowed and buffaloed by bullies, and the bullies know this. But bullies are stupid--slaves to their own methods of intimidation and to routine. The unexpected throws them off-kilter, as does the realization that the object of their bullying may just turn out to be tougher than they are.
"The Odious Ogre" ought to be on the bookshelf of every bright and bookish parent who's trying to raise a bright and bookish child. I truly hope that this isn't the last hurrah of Team Juster-Feiffer, but if it is, they went out with a bang.