As [Milo] and his unhappy thoughts hurried along (for while he was never anxious to be where he was going, he liked to get there as quickly as possible) it seemed a great wonder that the world, which was so large, could sometimes feel so small and empty.
But when Milo returns home from school one day, he finds a large box containing a turnpike tollbooth in his bedroom. And since there's nothing else he wants to do (there never is), he dusts off his old electric car (which, like all his toys, he tired of long ago), approaches the tollbooth, deposits a coin, and drives through the gate. Next thing Milo knows he's been ushered Beyond Expectations into The Lands Beyond.
With a watchdog named Tock (whom Milo soon meets in The Doldrums), Milo visits The Word Market in Dictionopolis, "a happy kingdom, advantageously located in the foothills of confusion and caressed by breezes from the sea of knowledge" governed by King Azaz the Unabridged; there he gains his mission: to rescue the banished princesses Rhyme and Reason from their exile in The Mountains of Ignorance. The Phantom Tollbooth is more than a great adventure; it's a playful celebration of language and of life - and since I first encountered it twelve years ago, surely one of my favorite books in the world.
Its author, however, considered writing his second job. Despite decades running his own architectural practice, Norton Juster somehow managed to publish another classic, as well, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, later produced as an animated short by legendary cartoonist Chuck Jones.
Dave: The Phantom Tollbooth has been in print for more than forty years now, yet here you are, still, presenting the book to audiences and introducing it to another generation of readers. Have things been this way consistently since its publication?
Norton Juster: Pretty much. I've always received a lot of mail. I used to get it mostly from the publisher, but now there's a web site where someone has posted my address, so I get a lot of mail from that, too. I visit schools. People call. There are certain places, schools and such, that every year send me a package with letters from each of the kids with drawings and so on.
The book has grown at a steady pace, year by year, which is very nice. There aren't too many books around for forty years in print.
Dave: I read it for the first time in a children's literature course in college.
Juster: What else did you read in that course?
Juster: Maurice Sendak.
Dave: Right. We read a book each week, so the week we discussed Higglety Pigglety Pop! was particularly enjoyable because the whole book has just a few hundred words. It was rather quick reading - much like The Dot and the Line, in that respect.
I wondered about the process of writing such a short book. Was it conceived of one burst of creativity?
Juster: Once I got the idea and got plugged into it, I wrote it very quickly. The difficult part was the illustrations, tracking them down. For a while I almost gave up on it. It was a lot of work, working with old-fashioned equipment to make the squiggle appear as unruly as I imagined it, for instance. This was a long time before computers. I thought, How am I going to do this? I can't find any of what I need. But I kept plugging away.
Dave: When The Phantom Tollbooth was published, there were concerns that it would be too difficult for children. You weren't thinking about a particular audience though, were you?
Juster: I wasn't. There was no audience but me.
Part of the problem with children's books is that too many people start out by saying, "Okay, I'm writing a book for kids from nine to twelve, and this is the subject, and this is the lesson I want to impart." There's a whole agenda there, and once you start with that you're in big trouble because then it's a product, not a story; it's less than what it should be.
Dave: I was excited to hear that the Everpresent Wordsnatcher is one of your favorite characters. Last night I was describing him to friends, how he tells Milo, "I don't live here. I'm from a place very far away called Context....It's such an unpleasant place that I spend almost all my time out of it."
I love that. It's so clever. Like so much else in the book, it shows entirely mundane ideas in such a fresh light. And of course the wordplay, which is relentless from beginning to end.
Juster: It's the literary equivalent of drawing outside of the lines, thinking outside of the box: follow an idea wherever it goes, play with it. I really do think that's important. We tend to be so directive of the way children think.
Dave: In a sense that's what the whole book is about, playing at life, learning by paying attention instead of approaching people and things with preconceived notions.
Juster: When you're very young and you learn something - a fact, a piece of information, whatever - it doesn't connect to anything. You don't know where it belongs, how you're supposed to use it, or of what possibly utility it can be in the future. As you get older you find that things start to connect to other things, and when you reach my age nothing you learn doesn't connect to twenty other things.
I think kids slowly begin to realize that what they're learning relates to other things they know. Then learning starts to get more and more exciting.
I remember when I was a kid in school and teachers would explain things to me about what I read, and I'd think, Where did they get that? I didn't read that in there. Later you look at it and think, That's kind of an interesting idea.
There's a lot in the book that I didn't know was there. I just wrote it from my own experiences, how I remembered things used to feel. I'd get an idea and run with it, play around with it.
Dave: You started painting watercolors while you were in the Navy, right? But had you written or thought about writing a children's book before The Phantom Tollbooth?
Juster: I'd never written anything formally. When I got out of the Navy I did my first little book called The Passing of Irving. I still have it at home. I never published it. It wasn't good enough. It was just something to get me going.
I received a grant from The Ford Foundation to write a book for kids about urban perception, or how people experience cities, but I kept putting off writing it. Instead I started to write what became The Phantom Tollbooth. It was like goofing off, writing this. It was fun. I did a lot of research for the other book, but whenever I sat down to write I kept going back to the fictional story. But that's where a lot of the ideas came from, the book I'd originally intended to write, because that's what I'd been thinking about.
I started on the book about cities, but I got off track, onto this, and it just took off. I never did write the book about cities. The Ford Foundation very graciously accepted The Phantom Tollbooth, instead.
Dave: That project clearly inspired the chapter about Illusion and Reality. It's one of the passages I underlined when I read the book in college, living in a city for the first time.
No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear.
Juster: How many times have you walked down the street and thought, How long has that been there? You realize, or someone will tell you, that it's always been there. It's been there for the last twenty or thirty years!
You anesthetize yourself to a place with over-familiarity. And that's the battle in life, to keep yourself fresh to those things so you're always aware.
Dave: At the root of the book is the conflict between words and numbers.
Juster: And that's the basic conflict, isn't it, the battle between the arts and the sciences? That's why at the end of the book, as everyone is leaving the carnival, Azaz and the Mathemagician start up a little argument again, as they're in effect going offstage. That was my way of saying, "Don't take anything for granted. It's going to all happen again."
Dave: Had you planned to be an architect from a young age?
Juster: When I went to school I couldn't conceive of anything else I wanted to do. My father was an architect. My brother was an architect. From day one, my toys would be the samples my father brought home from the office: wood samples, stone samples. That's what I messed around with. I loved the idea of making things.
I used to like to write and mess around when I was in elementary school and in high school, but I never took it too seriously. I went to architectural school, and then went over to England for a year. I had my own architectural practice for many, many years.
Dave: As vocations go, architecture draws liberally from both the arts and the sciences. It's creative, and yet it demands precision.
Juster: It has to meet very practical needs - there's that aspect, too. Whereas when you do a piece of sculpture nobody has to live in it or use it.
Dave: When you were working on The Phantom Tollbooth, you were living in the same apartment building as Jules Feiffer, right? How did you two wind up together?
Juster: We've been good friends since the mid-fifties. When I was in the Navy, my last station was at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I was living in Brooklyn Heights, just a short drive away. I got an apartment, and Jules was in the same building. He was on the third floor, and I had the basement apartment, a ratty little place. So that's when we got to know each other.
When they cleared that building out to fix it up, we took a place together, another run-down, ratty place. In fact there was a third guy with us for a while. It was very typical of the time.
Dave: When you first approached him with The Phantom Tollbooth, he thought illustrating the story sounded fun?
Juster: I didn't even approach him. He just started making drawings. He was reading the stuff I wrote, and without telling me, really, he started to make a few drawings. I told him they were terrific. That's how it happened.
I don't know how to describe it, but it was a time, a period in our lives, when we were a little nutty. I started creating characters that Jules wouldn't know how to draw. That's how I came up with The Triple Demons of Compromise. In the book, I describe them: "one tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third exactly like the other two." It struck me as funny to try to write things he would have difficulty drawing.
But it was all in good humor. Just like the Whether Man, his illustration. Jules modeled him after me.
Dave: You didn't write the chapters in order.
Juster: There were a lot of scenes that I pieced together afterwards. And there was no outline, so I didn't know where I was going with it. I knew basically, and after a little while I knew the story was going to be Milo's quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason, but I didn't know how the interim scenes would go.
Dave: Were you working with any role models in mind, particular stories or writers?
Juster: People always ask about my influences, and they cite a bunch of people I've never heard of. My influences were my father, who loved to play with words, and the Marx Brothers. My father was the kind of person who would greet you by saying, "I see you're coming early lately. You used to be behind before but now you're first at last." And the Marx Brothers, well, enough said.
Dave: Earlier today, you mentioned that a few years ago you resisted the publication of a new edition using different artwork, by a different illustrator. I'd been discussing the illustrations with some coworkers the other day, how essential they are to our vision of the story.
The Harry Potter series uses the same style of art from book to book and edition to edition. But another great contemporary series, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, has been released with very different styles of covers - the trade paper editions are different than the mass markets, and the design of the third hadcover of the trilogy isn't quite like either of the first two at all. It's oddly off-putting, and somehow it detracts from the experience of envisioning these other worlds.
Juster: I think so, too. Jules's illustrations are the illustrations. They just are. I know what you mean.
I haven't read the Pullman books, but I hear they're wonderful.
Dave: Do you keep up with children's literature these days?
Juster: Not in any formal way. For some reason, an extraordinary concentration of children's book writers and illustrators live in the Connecticut Valley, where I live, so I see a lot. People send me stuff, but I'm not what you would call a student of children's literature, no.
Dave: People must ask you about the Harry Potter phenomenon.
Juster: A lot of people ask. I like them. I've read two of them so far. They're very good.
Dave: They've certainly transcended the realm of children's literature. Most of my friends have read at least one of them.
Juster: I think really good books can be read by anybody. Sometimes I have a problem labeling a children's book as if it were some lesser form. There are good books and there are bad books, period, that's the distinction. A good book written for children can be read by adults.
One of the problems you have when you read with kids is that once they like something they want you to read it a hundred times. If you've ever read a book that you don't like a hundred times, you know what a chore it is. So it's the good ones you really savor.
Dave: Already there has been one film adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth. Were you involved? You mentioned that there might be a live action film in the future.
Juster: I wasn't involved with the first film. I don't have the rights, so I don't have any leverage. They do seem interested in me being involved in the proposed project, and I hope that's the case.
It's a tough world, the movie world. I try to keep it out of my head. If it happens it will happen. Otherwise you're waiting for sugarplums dancing in the air.
Dave: And you're working on more books now?
Juster: I finished one, which is at the publisher, and it should be out at the end of the year. Another will be in to the publisher in the next few months. And I have another chapter book I'm working on. I keep busy now.
Dave: It seems like you're writing more now than ever.
Juster: More than for a while, certainly, because when the architectural practice got really busy, there I was with three partners, and you don't walk away. You can't say, "I'm working on a book. I'll see you in two weeks." You have to be there. And it's hard for me. I can't write unless I have other things out of my head. I can't just switch gears. I know there are people who can, but I can't.
Dave: Are you a morning writer?
Juster: I write best in the morning, and I can only write for about half a day, that's about it. I run out of juice and I have to refuel for the rest of the day. That refueling can be the most mundane sort of thing, sitting in front of the television set or taking a walk. Vegetating, really.
Dave: Are there any particular moments that stand out for you, opportunities or such, results of the book's success and longevity?
Juster: A lot of things. Making the animated cartoon of The Dot and the Line with Chuck Jones, certainly.
A lot of things have happened because of the book. It really did change my life. I've met a lot of people, I've gone places, getting invited here and there, and it's provided me with a lot of flexibility in my life because it brings in money and gives me a certain amount of freedom, which is always nice, somewhere in the back of your mind to be able to say, "It's alright. I can get by. I have something coming in."
Dave: It must be incredibly fulfilling to have created a story from very personal fears and questions, and to realize that so many people hold it close to their heart.
Juster: That amazes me. The number of people that have told me it's affected their lives...sometimes I'm in absolute awe of that. You're right; it's a very nice feeling. When you write a book like this, any book really, you have no idea whether it's going to resonate, whether it's going to mean anything at all to anyone else. In fact, it seems to touch very much a set of universal ideas and circumstances for people, especially kids when they're about that age. It feels very good.
Dave: It is amazing. The story is hardly dated forty years later.
Juster: The story still resonates. If anything might wind up dating it, it's the tollbooth. When I wrote it, I didn't realize that people in the West wouldn't be familiar with tollbooths. Now they're even starting to remove them back East. That may end up being what dates the book. People will ask, "What was a tollbooth?"
Norton Juster read to an overflow, all-ages audience at Powell's in Beaverton on April 13, 2002. The general mood of the room was one of awe, as in, I can't believe I'm listening to Norton Juster. You half expected Roald Dahl or A.A. Milne to join him at the podium.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State