A Tribute to Norton Juster (1929-2021): The Phantom Tollbooth’s Classic Cover Morphs

This week marked the passing of one of America’s great fantasists, Norton Juster, the creator of The Phantom Tollbooth, the wickedly punny allegory about how to wake up a wasted mind,  illustrated by Jules Feiffer.  Juster’s generous gift of a collection of foreign-language translations of The Phantom Tollbooth in 2018 was the occasion of this post, which is being repeated this week to celebrate the vitality of his contribution to children’s literature,  The Cotsen collection also has Feiffer drawings of the Triple Demons of Compromise, the Man in the Ceiling, and Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Witch to go along with the books. 

Norton Juster’s 1961 fantasy The Phantom Tollbooth is that rare classic in which the text and original illustrations are inseparable, rather like Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. Mention Alice and some illustration of her drawn by John Tenniel probably pops into the mind. Is Milo ever anyone but the skinny boy in a black sweater Jules Feiffer drew? And there’s only one cover design for the book. This one.

But when a work becomes so famous that translations in other languages are called for, covers and dust jackets have a way of changing publisher to publisher, country to country..

Here’s the front board of the Korean-language version. The right illustration is on the turquoise background, but the shade of turquoise is not quite the same as in the original. Look carefully and you can see that the figures of Milo and Tock are shiny. They were printed on a material other than paper and applied to the dust jacket. American books almost never have a colored band that wraps around the boards, but it’s common in the packaging of Japanese books–and I assume elsewhere in Asia. And the raised white characters below the banner with the English title are interesting typographically whether they are legible or not.

The selection of typefaces are the most noticeable change in the design for the Lithuanian-language. The slate blue background is handsome, but perhaps a little dark, compared to the turquoise original. The color did not photograph true, so you’ll have to take my word that it’s quite dark..The cover artist for the Romanian-language edition substituted another illustration for the original one of Milo and Toc and colorized it. Some of the figures were also printed on the same shiny material and laminated to the cover just as in the Korean translation. Should Milo’s car be orange? Why does he have blue hair? By the way, the sea in the middle distance is actually turquoise and the sky slate blue.

Now for the covers that are completely different from Feiffer’s. All the familiar characters are there, but without making any reference to the original illustrator. The Hebrew and German covers are in a surrealistic style, which underscores the possibility that the journey was all in Milo’s mind. The German translation has no text illustrations except for road signs, a concept that works very well.

The brightly colored cartoony covers for the Japanese- and Serbo-Croatian-language editions impose themselves on Juster’s world, rather than bringing out different dimensions of it. It’s unclear why Tock was given the teeth of a human being instead of a dog, unless the change was to make him look more friendly.

The French Livre de Poche paperback is unique in placing Tock and the Humbug center stage, with Milo and his car floating in the background along with the author’s name in an extremely small sans serif type. The French translation is, incidently, completely unillustrated except for Juster’s map. Last but not least is the Polish translation with a cover design by Grzegorz Kierzkowski. The title set in a wild mixture of different typefaces hints that what is to come may violate rhyme and reason! Kierzkowski deserves credit for having the confidence to reimagine Juster’s story without reference to Feiffer.

Norton Juster himself presented to Cotsen this delightful tasting menu of modern cover design on the translations of his celebrated fantasy. Thanks, Norton, for this very welcome and unexpected addition to the collection! You can hear Cotsen’s Outreach Coordinator Dana Sheridan’s interview with Norton on the Bibliofiles.


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