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'Phantom Tollbooth' Author Norton Juster Dies At 91

Keith Trice/ Creative Commons

A large dog with an alarm clock for a body (a “watchdog,” if you will). A giant bee that can apparently spell any word. A figure with 12 faces, one for each emotion. These are just some of the fantastic characters author Norton Juster created in his beloved 1961 children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth. Juster died Monday in his home in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was 91 years old. The cause was complications from a recent stroke, according to a statement from his daughter, Emily Juster.

The Phantom Tollbooth tells the story of Milo, a young boy utterly bored and disaffected with the world around him -- until a mysterious and magical tollbooth shows up and he drives his toy car through. It leads him on an unexpected adventure, one that encourages Milo’s curiosity and inspires a love of learning new things.

“I had been an odd child,” Juster wrote in a 2011 essay for NPR marking the book's 50th anniversary. “Quiet, introverted and moody. When I grew up, I still felt like that puzzled kid: disconnected, disinterested and confused. There was no rhyme or reason in that kid's life.”

Juster was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929. He spent three years in the Navy and then began working as an architect in New York City. He’d gotten a grant to write a book for kids about cities, but after a short burst of enthusiasm, he was left uninspired and dispirited. That project would eventually become The Phantom Tollbooth, Juster's first book, with illustrations from Jules Feiffer. It was well received, but not by everyone. In that NPR essay, Juster wrote:

“Not everyone in the publishing world of the 1960s embraced The Phantom Tollbooth. Many said that it was not a children’s book, the vocabulary was much too difficult, and the ideas were beyond kids.

“To top it off, they claimed fantasy was bad for children because it disorients them ... and that no child should ever have to confront anything that he or she didn’t already know. But my feeling was that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet -- the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure. Today’s world of texting and tweeting is quite a different place, but children are still the same as they’ve always been.”

Credit Joyce Skowyra / New England Public Media
New England Public Media
Norton Juster spent much of his life in western Massachusetts.

Though Juster continued to write books throughout his life (his book The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics was adapted into a 1965 Oscar-winning animated short), his main focus was architecture. In 1970, he opened his own firm and had a long career as a professor of design at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, until he retired from both in the 90s.

Juster and Feiffer, The Phantom Tollbooth's illustrator, reunited in 2010 for another book, The Odious Ogre. Juster told NPR in 2010 that it was aimed at a slightly older crowd than Tollbooth. But it still maintained Juster’s style of playing with language and learning. In the book, the ogre expands his vocabulary by eating a dictionary as he consumed a librarian.

“I couldn't resist that,” Juster said.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.

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