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July 18, 2012 3:02 pm

Jewish Author Reflects on ‘Phantom Tollbooth’ Jubilee

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avatar by Matt Robinson / JNS.org

The cover of "The Phantom Tollbooth." Photo: Random House.

Growing up in Brooklyn and going to school in Philadelphia, Jewish author Norton Juster saw and experienced some of the best and biggest of what man had made. And yet, he found it in his heart to not only work on improving the design of man’s external world, but also that of his internal world.

Although originally trained in architecture, Juster eventually became a writer, penning the long-beloved book, The Phantom Tollbooth, which recently celebrated its 50th year in continuous international print with both a celebratory jubilee edition.

As the son of an architect, Juster studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania before serving his country in the Navy. When he returned, however, he felt limited by the drafting table and was not sure what to do with the rest of his life.

“I was confused and had no real sense of what I wanted to do,” he tells JNS.org, “so I got a job in an architect’s office.”

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Later, while studying as a Fulbright scholar in Liverpool, England, Juster became interested in design.

“I worked on the New Town movement after the War,” he explains. “I got interested in cities and civic planning,” he says.

As a means of introducing himself to the field, Juster figured he would introduce others as well. “I got an idea to do a book for kids on cities and how they work,” he recalls.

Juster would go on to score a Ford Foundation grant (for which the voters may not have known he was Jewish) to write that book, and soon was “up to my arse in 3×5 cards and footnotes.”

Though the Ford-funded book started with a roar, it eventually began to sputter. “After about four-five months,” Juster recalls, “I realized I didn’t have the juice to do it.”

While on vacation with friends, Juster began taking daily walks to “get the city stuff out of my head.” Still, the idea of a book for children remained, and Juster’s concept for The Phantom Tollbooth started to develop. “I started doing a little story about a kid who didn’t like school,” Juster says, admitting that The Phantom Tollbooth‘s main character—Milo—was based very much on himself.

“Milo (the protagonist) is all me,” he says, “That is literally the way I was as a kid.”

Describing himself simply as “different,” Juster explains that he was somewhat of a puzzle to his parents and peers. “I was sort of a nebbish kid,” he demurs, “and they never knew what they were going to get back from me. They cared for me and loved me, but it was uneasy because I was so different and so incomprehensible to them.”

As much as he knew about cities, Juster knew infinitely more about being a troubled adolescent looking for friends and a sense of purpose. Unlike his first book idea, therefore, The Phantom Tollbooth took hold and continued to grow.

“Eventually,” Juster muses, “it became the book!”

With “the book” completed, Juster still had to face the folks at Ford, to whom he owed something for their funds. “I was anxiety-ridden,” he admits, “because I had taken $5,000 from Ford to write the other book.”

Regardless of the funding situation, writing The Phantom Tollbooth showed Juster that he loved writing and perhaps had a calling in life, after all. Nevertheless, as he was unsure about future funding, he followed his father back into architecture. “The book came out in 1961,” he recalls, “which is when I started my firm.”

Designing and teaching, Juster settled into a “happy” life of architecture and academia. Still, the book bug did not go away. And it still hasn’t.

“In 1992, I retired from architecture practice,” Juster recalls, “and a couple of years after that, I retired from teaching. Now, I am writing again and having a wonderful time.”

Though writing is again Juster’s primary focus, it did not disappear during his decades of design. Initially considering a sequel to The Phantom Tollbooth, Juster eventually emerged with another award-winning classic, The Dot and the Line. “When I did my second book,” Juster explains, “I went as far away as possible from anything that could relate [to The Phantom Tollbooth]. It still had some word play and fantasy, but it was a math thing – a ‘mathematical romance’ I called it. It was absolutely crazy, but I had such fun doing it.” Juster’s fun translated well, as the book went on to become an Academy Award-winning animated film.

While millions of readers and viewers love his work, Juster says his publishers remain puzzled. “The publishers still did not know what to do with it,” he suggests, noting that he never writes for what the industry calls “a target audience.”

“I write what is on my mind and do it the way I want to do it,” he insists. “That may be contrary, but that is the way it happens.”

Juster says had he not been trained as an architect, The Phantom Tollbooth would not have been what it was. “I start with images and do things differently than the way most writers do,” he says, “and that comes from architectural training which makes you look at everything from different points of view.”

This may be one reason why Juster rails against the modern education system. “In school today, you learn one way to do a thing,” he observes. “That makes me angry because the essence of why you go to school is to develop a way to look at things from various points of view.”

Juster points out that when The Phantom Tollbooth came out, book editors believed “it was not a children’s book and…that fantasy was ‘bad’ for children.”

However, Juster says fantasy has been “the only way I could learn or get my head around things” since he was a child. It turns out that his book about structures had very little of its own.

“I didn’t write sequentially,” Juster admits. “I started having fun and messing around with ideas that I had misunderstood or had problems with in school and, as I pulled it apart in crazy ways.”

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