“It’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.” These words, from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, were spoken to the story’s hero, Milo, but Juster was also speaking them to himself.
Juster spent his life learning, delighting in all that there was to know. Born on June 2, 1929, in Brooklyn, Juster developed a love of reading from an early age thanks to his family’s habit of reading aloud together, and this is likely where he gained his appreciation for words — especially for the way they sounded.
Following in his father’s and older brother’s footsteps, Juster attended the University of Pennsylvania and studied architecture. He joined the Navy after graduating, and it was during long dull days stationed on foggy seas that he began developing his writing. Indeed, the story goes that he was called in to speak with his commanding officer, who told him that his little watercolor pictures of fairies and elves (and the stories Juster wrote to accompany them) needed to come down. In fact, he needed to stop making them altogether, as it was apparently “demoralizing the battalion.” According to Juster: “The Navy men didn’t do that sort of thing, so I had to stop.”
After his time in the Navy, Juster opened his own architecture firm (in an interesting twist, one of the projects the firm undertook was designing the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art), and then his first book, The Phantom Tollbooth, was published 1961. According to Juster, he didn’t set out to write a book for children. He just wrote the book as a way to put some of his own thoughts down on paper, expressing feelings he had as a young boy trying to figure out how all the things he learned in school connected to one another. In a 2011 article for NPR, Juster wrote,
I had been an odd child: quiet, introverted and moody. Little was expected from me. Everyone left me alone to wander around inside my own head. When I grew up I still felt like that puzzled kid — disconnected, disinterested and confused. There was no rhyme or reason in his life. My thoughts focused on him, and I began writing about his childhood, which was really mine.
Juster was also avoiding writing a different book for children — about architecture — and had decided to escape by taking a vacation. While at a restaurant, he had a conversation with a young boy about the mathematical concept of “infinity.” As Juster said, “it was two mathematical illiterates talking about infinity. And it really started me thinking about the things that always, not so much bugged me, that I didn’t understand. I understood them somewhat conceptually, but I didn’t understand why they were there at all, I mean why we had to concern ourselves with things like that.”
While the overall response to The Phantom Tollbooth was overwhelmingly positive, in a video interview with Reading Rocket, Juster said:
I’m always confronted by people objecting to difficult vocabulary, which I tend to use. I like words. And someone said recently, I wish I say that I couldn’t, but to kids, there are no difficult words, there are just words they have never come across before. They are not difficult . . . they are just something they don’t know about.
He was adamant about not dumbing down books for kids. Many in the publishing world at the time disagreed, saying that The Phantom Tollbooth was too difficult for children, and perhaps more alarmingly, that children should not read fantasy because it “disorients” them.
The all-knowing publishers were wrong, though. This year, The Phantom Tollbooth turned 60, and is still widely read and loved by all ages. Juster never expected it to become the well-loved classic it is today, but he did note the timeless nature of the book’s themes:
Today’s world of texting and tweeting is quite a different place, but children are still the same as they’ve always been. They still get bored and confused, and still struggle to figure out the important questions of life.
Besides continuing his architecture firm, Juster was a college professor for many years, and he also kept up his writing, publishing another eleven books over the next 50 years. These books are each charming in their own way, and one particular clever tale, The Dot and the Line, was taken up by director Chuck Jones and turned into an award-winning animated short film. Juster passed away at the age of 91 on March 8th, 2021, in his home in Massachusetts.
Thank you, Norton Juster, for reminding us to stop and take in the daily wonders and marvels that surround us.