You’ve either never read the Phantom Tollbooth, or it’s your favorite book. The first time you met Milo, you were probably his age, around 10, and Tollbooth seemed like a sweet little chapter book about a boy who’s always bored and aimless. One day, a tollbooth materializes in his room, and with nothing much else to do, he hops into his little blue car and drives through, into a lovely story about words, math, and saving the two beautiful princesses of Rhyme and Reason. By the time you realize the whole book is an allegory, it’s too late. You’ve already absorbed some meaningful life lessons about being ethical, industrious, and not eating too much Subtraction Soup.
Now, 52 years after the book’s publication, a new documentary is telling the story behind the tollbooth. And as Tollbooth‘s illustrator Jules Feiffer was drawing one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature, he was also working at this paper, satirizing the Nixon administration and dreaming of bringing down the government.
The documentary is The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations. It’s premiering October 6 as part of The New Yorker Festival, for which director Hannah Jayanti says tickets sold out in eight minutes flat.
“It’s still astounding to me how many people come out of the woodwork when you mention the book,” Jayanti says. She’s heard everything from “That book changed my life,” to, increasingly, “We named our kid Milo.” (Interestingly, the name peaked in popularity in 2012, enjoying a rise it hasn’t seen since 1914 or so.)
In advance of the film, Jayanti was kind enough to share an exclusive video with us, of Feiffer reminiscing about his Voice days:
All cartoons and illustrations by Jules Feiffer; music by ARMS
Feiffer was living on the Lower East Side when he began drawing for the Voice; he later moved to Brooklyn Heights, where he felt more comfortable; at the time, the neighborhood was full of young radicals and artists, who, like him, wanted to see a different social order. One of them was his roommate, Norton Juster; in 1961, Feiffer agreed to sketch a few cartoons to go with a children’s book he was writing, although neither of them were sure it would ever be published.
Until then, he had his Voice panels to vent his populist rage. “The nature of my Voice cartoon was essentially, in cartoon and satiric form, to decode the public conversation and the private conversation,” he says. “To show, in six or eight panels, what men and women were saying to each other when they said something else. What the government was saying when it said one thing or another. To get at the truth of the subtext, as opposed to the bullshit that was the cover for the subtext.”
Feiffer called bullshit, too, on the “Cold War mentality” that gripped the country at that time, and the lies and misinformation he heard from the government, which drove him “nuts.”