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Norton Juster, an architect and children’s author best known for writing The Phantom Tollbooth, died at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, at the age of 91. His daughter, Emily Juster, said he had faced health complications related to a stroke.
Juster was born in Brooklyn in 1929 to Samuel Juster and Minnie Silberman. Samuel Juster was a Romanian immigrant who became an architect, and Norton’s brother Howard was also an architect. Norton studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and later urban planning at the University of Liverpool. His fondness for children’s stories was evident during his time in the United States Navy Civil Engineer Corps, which he joined in 1954.
During his promotion to Lieutenant Junior Grade, he began writing and illustrating children’s stories while stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Juster also formed an exclusive membership group called the Garibaldi Society, the sole purpose of which was to turn down potential members. Those early days of his interest in children’s literature and his first encounter with Jules Feiffer are described in The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, published in 2011 for the book’s 50th anniversary.
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The Phantom toll booth
In 1958, Juster began working as an architect in New York City and received a grant from the Ford Foundation to write a book about cities for children. This work got boring for him after a while and he got stuck in the doldrums. Then he began to write the story of Milo and his inadvertent journey to the lands beyond. Jules Feiffer provided illustrations, and The Phantom Tollbooth came to readers in 1961. It was then converted into a live action / animated film and musical.
Although Tollbooth is greatest at Norton Juster’s work, he also founded his own architectural practice in Massachusetts and taught architecture and environmental design at Hampshire College from 1972 to 1990. In the 1990s he retired from both the architecture office and the professorship.
The point and the line
Although he was not as productive as a writer due to his architecture and professorship, he continued to write and publish books after the success of The Phantom Tollbooth in 1961. In 1963 he wrote and illustrated The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics. and it was later converted to a short film directed by Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble in 1965. It then won the Oscar for Animated Short Film. He also worked with Eric Carle on a book called Otter Nonsense and later helped design the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The hideous ogre
Norton Juster has reunited with Jules Feiffer for the first time since The Phantom Tollbooth in The Odious Ogre (2010). It had many of the puns and visual humor flairs that set Tollbooth apart, but Juster said it was intended for a slightly older audience. Juster’s last published book was Neville, illustrated by Brian G. Kraus, in 2011.
The Phantom toll booth finds readers to date with over five million copies sold. Juster enjoyed the Wizard of Oz book series and read many Russian and Yiddish books in his family home. So it makes sense that he was influenced to write a portal fantasy book obsessed with puns. As Milo (the main character of Tollbooth, who suffers from boredom) walks through the mysterious toll booth to the countries beyond, he encounters a multitude of physical illustrations of idioms and common phrases. The Spelling Bee, the Humbug and Tock (the “watchdog”) traverse places like Digitopolis, the Mountains of Ignorance and at one point accidentally jump to the Isle of Conclusions.
In an article for NPR in 2011, Juster discussed the initial lack of enthusiasm for The Phantom Tollbooth in the 1960s. Apparently the ingrained belief was that the imagination was “disoriented” and therefore inappropriate for young readers. All children’s books should be simple in terms of story and vocabulary so that children don’t become discouraged and leave books behind. In response, Juster wrote: “[My] The feeling is that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet – the kind of liberating words Milo encounters on his adventure. “
The handshake over what children should or shouldn’t read goes on, especially on the issue of queer children’s books. The idea of offering children challenging books with different stories that they may be unfamiliar with has been a constant debate, but Juster proved with the success of The Phantom Tollbooth that children were always hungry to explore new worlds. Like Milo, kids actually want to explore things they may not be familiar with while reading, whether going to the classics early or reading books above the arbitrary reading level. The organization We Need Diverse Books also addresses this need for children to read a lot about topics that can seem complicated or difficult.
My very popular edition of The Phantom Tollbooth
Although there are far fewer toll booths, I think the Phantom toll booth is still the perfect reading experience for kids interested in imagination and pun. When my parents read the book to me as a child and then I reread the chapters myself, I was fascinated by the literal illustrations of abstract language topics that I had not yet fully understood. The Phantom toll booth awakened my love for portal fantasy and an interest in making normal life a little more interesting and exciting. All of Juster’s work led us to look straight out of our circles of familiarity and do things that seemed strange or confusing. I hope the Phantom toll booth can continue to be a way to take young readers to the lands beyond and spark their imaginations far beyond their bedrooms.