Norton Juster captured the hearts and minds of many a reader with his uniquely playful acclaimed novel The Phantom Tollbooth, published in 1961. He died earlier this week in his Northampton, MA, home at the age of 91.
His housemate, the talented Jules Feiffer, illustrated the now-masterpiece about a bored boy named Milo who enters a mysterious tollbooth just to see what happens, and in doing so enters a world of imagination, wonderment and curiosity. Nearly 5 million copies of the story have been sold, and it remains a household name to this day. It conjures up such a wealth of imagery that it’s been represented in various art forms from the Broadway stage to the silver screen. The book is ostensibly for children, but all technicalities aside it appeals to any age; this is thanks to its sincerely thought-provoking underlying themes of finding joy in the mundane, the power of knowledge, and the intrinsic value present in both flights of fancy and good old common sense.
Norton Juster grew up in Brooklyn with a natural inclination toward reading, from earlier children’s classics like The Wizard of Oz to massive tomes he could barely comprehend but whose prose he loved for its aesthetic beauty. He attended the University of Pennsylvania for Architecture, won a Fulbright scholarship for city planning at the University of Liverpool in England, spent three years in the Navy’s engineering corps, and eventually became a New York-based architect.
The New York Times relays that the inspiration to write his famed novel struck “when a boy came up to him as Mr. Juster was waiting to be seated in a restaurant. ‘He suddenly asked, ‘What’s the biggest number there is?’” Mr. Juster recalled. “It was a startling question. The kind that children are so good at. I asked him what he thought the biggest number was, and then told him to add one to it. He did the same to me … I was intrigued, and thrown back into my own childhood memories and the way I used to think about the mysteries of life,” he added. “So I started to compose what I thought would be a little story about a child’s confrontation with numbers and words and meanings and other strange concepts that are imposed on children.”’ and ultimately penned an enduring classic.
Milo’s journey to the Kingdom of Wisdom certainly cures him of his malaise. He pursues a quest to put wrongs to right, along the way making meaningful friendships, learning important lessons, and successfully reestablishing the reign of princesses Rhyme and Reason. By the end, Milo has undergone a personal transformation through the process of exploring and defending a strange and colorful world of surprises.
It took a little while for the novel to become a classic, and during and after his initial success with The Phantom Tollbooth, Mr. Juster continued to work as an architect. He also further embraced his writing, composing Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys (1965), illustrated by Domenico Gnoli, and Otter Nonsense (1982), illustrated by Eric Carle, and his penchant for wordplay witticisms stars in his delightful, but quite obscure, A Surfeit of Similes (1989.) Neville, his last work, was published as recently as 2011 and won Amazon’s Best Picture Book of the Year.
A timeless book survives for a reason, and the reason for The Phantom Tollbooth’s legacy is easy to understand. The artful characters and storytelling resonate deeper with every turn of the page, and Mr. Juster’s gift is clear throughout his body of work. He indubitably was a singularly skilled author who merits a moment of silence at his passing; then afterward, a loud and resounding celebration of his achievements.