Despite my admittedly less than sophisticated taste in literature, I never expected to write about a children’s book for Cannonball Read. However, I was recently introduced to The Man in the Ceiling while I was helping my mom clean out my brother’s room and discovered it among his various childhood artifacts. As I know Jules Feiffer from his brilliant political and satirical cartoons in the Village Voice and from illustrating one of my own childhood favorites The Phantom Tollbooth, I was intrigued. With my brother’s permission, I stole the book back to my apartment for a read, where it will now stay on my bookshelf, even if I don’t have any kids to pass it along to.
Jimmy Jibbett is a failure at being a “typical” American boy, and he is agonizingly well aware of this fact. At 11 years old, he is a terrible ball player and a below average student with the tendency to daydream in class- facts that his disappointed father never fails to remind him of. However, Jimmy’s chief obsession is drawing, mostly comic books with his various invented heroes. His main comfort is that one day he shall be a great cartoonist, working for Marvel, DC, or even Disney. He sees all the days between the present and this shining future as time to hone his craft and bide his time before he truly takes his place in the world.
Despite his young age, Jimmy is well aware of society’s various roles, and his status as an outsider due to not having certain prized abilities. People like his number-crunching, sports-loving father (with a “real” job who provides for his family) and the good-looking social charmers at his school fall firmly into higher categories that Jimmy will never reach. Instead, he already identifies with “artists”, who live on the edges of society in unconventional roles (or as his dad calls them “bums”). This role is fully embodied by his beloved Uncle Lester, a failed songwriter with a string of Broadway flops and who Jimmy worships unreservedly, despite his father’s scorn.
Jimmy’s cartoons and superheroes evolve, from the childish fantasy of an adventurer father who truly understands him to powerful heroes who fearlessly fight evil with a string of amazing powers. Despite his love for art, however, Jimmy comes to slowly acknowledge the difficulty and often futility of the entire endeavor. He falls into periods of frustration, creative block, and anger. He faces a family that love him, yet truly do not understand him, or really know what to do with him; particularly a father who (is implied) is carefully watching to make sure he is not gay. He succumbs to pressure to create a work based on a popular boy’s ideas, reigning in his own imagination and conforming, so he will have more social standing among his peers. And finally, Jimmy must confront the terrifying realization that every creative person is forced to make after multiple failures: just because you love to do something does not necessarily mean you are good at it or will succeed in doing it. He sees the stark possibility of failure in Uncle Lester, now almost completely broken and without hope after a lifetime of never succeeding; and dreads this goal for himself. The novel ends on a hopeful note, however- although we do not know if Jimmy will ever achieve his dreams, it is stated that he shall not stop aiming for them.
And despite the slightly downer themes, the book is funny, with Jimmy’s family hilarious and realistic in their collective struggles and interactions. It is chock full of references to famous comic books or old timey adventures like The Green Hornet or Flash Gordon. Feiffer draws all of Jimmy’s work as well, done in thickly smudged pencil and awkward perspective that nonetheless allow you to see Jimmy’s instinct for drawing and angles that speak of a lifetime of poring over comic books, trying to find the right way to stage action scenes and create a grandiose (if appropriately overwrought) atmosphere. The dialogue is suitably misspelled and hokey, and none of the stories are exactly captivating, even if the premises are somewhat imaginative. His efforts are adorable and laughably immature; yet the potential and painstaking labor are undoubtedly present. As a cartoonist himself, I am sure that to some degree, Feiffer’s tale is somewhat autobiographical- hence its real feeling and humor that lies in the simple prose and vibrant sketching.
As a non-parent/educator, I am probably a horrible judge of what makes a good children’s book, so I have no idea to recommend this for any children or adolescents. The themes are far more complex than are often encountered or articulated in children’s literature. Furthermore, I’m sure not all young readers could relate to Jimmy’s character. However, I’m sure certain artistic or introverted children would understand; he certainly is similar to myself and many of my own childhood friends. I think many would also respond to Feiffer’s dynamic and vibrant drawings, as well as his warmth and humor throughout. Indeed, I feel like adults would relate just as much, if not more to Jimmy’s struggles- regardless of the age gap, these themes of creative frustration and despondency are eternally relevant at certain points in our lives.