Feiffer says he wasn't going to attend Cowdin's conference of children's book authors and illustrators from all over the country. "But my wife read the letter and said, 'You have to go.' Since I always do what my wife tells me, I'm going," he says.
Feiffer isn't known for doing what he's told. His career began in the early '60s not as a children's book author but as a nationally syndicated political cartoonist. He worked on children's books by happenstance. Feiffer and author Norton Juster lived as roommates in a Brooklyn apartment, and when Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, he took it for granted that Feiffer would illustrate it.
"I was much more interested in overthrowing the government than I was in kids' books," Feiffer recalls. But that changed when he was in his fifties and started having children for the second time. "I started paying more attention to the ins and outs and dos and don'ts of parenting because the ambition part of my career was over. I was still doing my work, but I didn't have to worry about anything but the completion of it. So with this second generation of children, I started noticing how weird it was, how exciting it was, that kids think differently than adults."
It helps that Feiffer has a vivid recollection of his own childhood, when adults were typically condescending -- that's why condescension is markedly absent in Feiffer's books. The Man in the Ceiling is about a boy named Jimmy who likes to draw as an escape from reality; it's the one thing he does well. The difference between Jimmy and nonfictional kids who, for example, simply stand on the playground hoping that the ball will not fly in their direction is that Jimmy uses language to express how he feels, doing so with such accuracy that adult readers find themselves transported back to a child's world. Conversely, children who read the book are privy to adult concerns: Feiffer includes Jimmy's parents' anxieties, his uncle's struggle to succeed and -- most important -- Jimmy's awareness of these matters.
Feiffer is working on his next two books. He's written stories that involve background details -- cars, houses, yards -- which is a challenge for him. "I can't draw cars. I can't draw planes. I can't draw anything that isn't human," he says.
But he enjoys the fact that he has to drive his car to the studio and make it pose for him, and that he's just now reading books on how to draw houses. "I love waking up stupid," he muses, "and having to learn how to do something because I'm the only one there to do it."