Norton Juster, who wrote 'The Phantom Tollbooth,' dies at 91
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Norton Juster, who wrote 'The Phantom Tollbooth,' dies at 91
“The Phantom Tollbooth,” published in 1961, is the story of a bored boy named Milo who, when a tollbooth inexplicably appears in his room, passes through it into a land of whimsy, wordplay and imagination.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Norton Juster, who wrote one of children’s literature’s most beloved and enduring books, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” died Monday at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was 91.

His daughter, Emily Juster, said in a statement that the cause was complications of a recent stroke.

“The Phantom Tollbooth,” published in 1961, is the story of a bored boy named Milo who, when a tollbooth inexplicably appears in his room, passes through it into a land of whimsy, wordplay and imagination.

The book was illustrated by the man Juster shared a duplex with at the time, Jules Feiffer, who was early in his renowned career as a cartoonist and author. It has sold almost 5 million copies, has been reissued multiple times, and was turned into an animated film and a stage musical.

“There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself,” the book begins, “not just sometimes, but always.”

Juster sent Milo through that magical tollbooth in an electric car and into a universe full of strange lands and characters. His first stop is a place called Expectations.

“Some people never go beyond Expectations,” a man there tells him, “but my job is to hurry them along whether they like it or not.”

The fellow dispensing that information is the Whether Man — “not the Weather Man,” as he explains to Milo, “for after all it’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be.”

And so it goes, until by the end of his journey Milo is no longer the blasé boy he was at the start. The combination of Juster’s lively prose and Feiffer’s evocative drawings proved irresistible, and not just to children.

“Most books advertised for ‘readers of all ages’ fail to keep their promise,” Ann McGovern wrote in her review in The New York Times in 1961. “But Norton Juster’s amazing fantasy has something wonderful for anybody old enough to relish the allegorical wisdom of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and the pointed whimsy of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”

Feiffer, in a statement, reflected on the qualities Juster brought to the book and the effect his story has had on generations of readers.

“His singular quality was being mischievous,” Feiffer said. “He saw humor as turning everything on its head. It’s incredible the effect he had on millions of readers who turned ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ into something of a cult or a religion.”

Juster, an architect by trade, called himself an “accidental writer,” but he went on to write other children’s books and reunited with Feiffer in 2010 on “The Odious Ogre.” In a 2012 interview with CNN, Juster talked about the key to writing for young readers.

“You have to retain, I guess, a good piece of the way you thought as a child,” he said. “I think if you lose all of that, that’s where the deadliness comes from. The idea of children looking at things differently is a precious thing. The most important thing you can do is notice.”

Norton Juster was born June 2, 1929, in Brooklyn to Samuel and Minnie (Silberman) Juster, who were Romanian immigrants. His father was an architect, his mother a homemaker.

As a child, Norton Juster particularly enjoyed the “Wizard of Oz” book series, but he also dived into the books he found in his parents’ collection.

“They had several shelves of huge Russian and Yiddish novels all translated into English,” he told the children’s literacy site Reading Rockets, “but, you know, 1,200, 1,500 pages. And I would read them and have no idea what I was reading, but I just loved the language and the way you read it and how the words sounded. And I think that has always affected the way I write.”

Juster received a bachelor’s degree in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1952, then was a Fulbright scholar in city planning at the University of Liverpool in England. After three years in the U.S. Navy’s engineering corps, he set up shop as an architect in New York.

In an introduction to a 1996 reissue of “The Phantom Tollbooth,” he said that the seed for the book was planted one day when a boy came up to him as Juster was waiting to be seated in a restaurant.

“He suddenly asked, ‘What’s the biggest number there is?’ ” 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. We continued back and forth and had a marvelous time talking about infinity and realizing that you simply couldn’t get there from here.”

“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.”

Maurice Sendak, whose famed children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” came out two years after “Tollbooth,” remembered that period fondly as a time when children’s authors were pushing beyond the blandness of an earlier era — a time, he wrote in a 1996 edition of “Wild Things,” when “it was easy to stay clean and fresh, and wildly ourselves.”

But, Sendak lamented, time had shown that Juster’s conjuring of the various allegorical monsters that Milo encountered proved to be all too spot on.

“The Demons of Ignorance, the Gross Exaggeration (whose wicked teeth were made ‘only to mangle the truth’), and the shabby Threadbare Excuse are inside the walls of the Kingdom of Wisdom,” Sendak wrote, “while the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, the Overbearing Know-it-all, and most especially the Triple Demons of Compromise, are already established in high office all over the world.”

Juster’s later books included “Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys” (1965), illustrated by Domenico Gnoli, and “Otter Nonsense” (1982), illustrated by Eric Carle.

Juster continued to practice architecture into the 1990s and was a founding faculty member of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he continued to teach until 1992.

His wife of 54 years, Jeanne Ray, died in 2018. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a granddaughter.

Juster would sometimes be faulted for his use of big or unfamiliar words in his children’s books, but he thought that challenging young readers was part of the point.

“To kids,” he said, “there are no difficult words, there are just words they have never come across before.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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