An Architect of Words and Illusions

 

Class of ’52 | “Tangents are my specialty,” Norton Juster Ar’52 is saying. “I digress very quickly and need no encouragement.

Juster’s whole career can be seen as a series of inspired tangents, befitting a man who cites the Marx Brothers as a formative influence. Having been trained —and made his living—as an architect, he is best known as a writer of (mainly) children’s books.

His most famous, by bounds if not leaps, is The Phantom Tollbooth, which he wrote when he was supposed to be working on a Ford Foundation-funded book for children about how cities are built and experienced. What he wrote instead was an astonishing tale of a bored boy named Milo who receives an enormous package containing a tollbooth and map and drives into a strange world filled with fantastical characters: a Watchdog named Tock (with the head of a dog and the body of a loudly ticking alarm clock); the Whether Man (who releases balloons in order to see which way the wind is blowing); Faintly Macabre (the “not-so-wicked Which”); and the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason, whom Milo must rescue in order to bring order to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

First published in 1961, The Phantom Tollbooth became an instant classic—and still sells briskly, bringing its creator a steady stream of mail, sometimes from the same readers who have reread it at different stages of life. The book is full of evocative line drawings by Juster’s friend Jules Feiffer, with whom he shared a bachelor pad in New York during their salad days. Since then, an animated Chuck Jones movie and even an opera of Phantom have been produced, and another movie deal is being discussed, though Juster knows enough not to dine on visions of Hollywood sugarplums.

Though he never did get back to that book for the Ford Foundation, Juster admits that a lot of the material he had gathered about cities “sort of snuck into” The Phantom Tollbooth. The twin cities of Reality and Illusions, for example, come alive because they are so carefully imagined—even though Reality has ceased to exist because its inhabitants are too busy to look at it, and Illusions never existed at all. “I have to visualize things before I can write about them,” says Juster matter-of-factly.

Among the great subplots in The Phantom Tollbooth is the conflict between Azaz the Un-abridged, King of Dictionopolis, and the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis. It is, in a sense, what Juster calls “the classic conflict we have between the humanities and the sciences” —which, as an architect, he embodies. (One of his favorite architectural projects resolved the conflict equitably: the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, the town where he now lives.)

“My architectural education [at Penn] was absolutely critical to my writing,” he says. “If I’d never done anything in architecture, I’d have had a very good education.” His firm, Juster Pope Frazier, had a “very diverse” practice in western Massachusetts, and its small size permitted him to work on a wide range of projects, many of them involving schools and performing arts.

But the books kept coming —ranging from The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (also turned into an animated short by Chuck Jones) to Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys (one of Juster’s favorites, especially the full-length edition with the late Domenico Gnoli’s illustrations) to an adult book, So Sweet to Labor: The Life and Work of Rural Women in America, 1865-1895.

Many of his books, such as Otter Nonsense, have afforded Juster an opportunity “to use all the bad jokes and puns rattling around in my head.” He came by that fondness naturally; his father would say things like: “I see you’re coming early lately. You used to be behind before but now you’re first at last.”

“When I speak at schools, I sometimes ask the kids, ‘Do you ever take a word, and repeat it to yourself again and again so that it no longer has meaning—it’s just a sound? You just play games with it,’” Juster explains. “And the response I get is extraordinary, because all kids do that.”

Much of The Phantom Tollbooth’s success has to do with the fact that it addresses children seriously, and doesn’t talk down to them. “It’s amazing to me how much kids get, and they get it on their own,” says Juster.

That quality also helps explain its staying power. “Somebody asked me, ‘Did you know when the book was published that it would last 40 years?’” Juster recalls. “I said, ‘I didn’t know it would last for 40 minutes!’ And that’s quite true. I thought the book was sort of geared to my own peculiarities, but it turned out that it touched a lot of universal issues for kids.”

Despite being semi-retired at age 74, he keeps himself “pretty busy.” One project is a chapter book called “Claudia’s Night,” about a girl, more or less modeled on his daughter, and her “adventures with
the dark.”

His daughter now has a daughter of her own, who is the inspiration for Juster’s other project, a series of picture books about a little girl who sees and imagines whole worlds through a window at her grandparents’ house. “The Hello Goodbye Window” is scheduled to be published this year by Hyperion Books.

“I kidded with her mother, my daughter, that until she gets an agent, I’m gonna exploit the hell out of her,” Juster says, chuckling quite wickedly.

Lucky girl. S.H.

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/19/04


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