Interview With The Phantom Tollbooth Author Norton Juster
It is the 50th anniversary of the seminal work of children's literature, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. It felt like the right time to dig out the t-shirt I got when I attended the opera created from the book, the movie version of the story, and line up the three dozen copies of the book we have in various rooms of the house. It felt like the right time to lie on the living room floor, head to head with the twins, like a human flower created out of our body petals, and listen to the audiobook version together. I entertained for the 3000th time finally getting a Milo tattoo on my leg (please, mum, forget that I wrote that last sentence). We are a Harry Potter family and an Alice in Wonderland family, but moreover, we are a Phantom Tollbooth family. My brother made sure of that by gifting the twins their own first copies while they were still in the NICU.
The reason why the Phantom Tollbooth appeals to children is the same reason why the construction of the book appeals to adults. In both cases, it's a tale of the unexpected, the unpredictable, the fact that anything can happen. Milo walks into his room and finds a mystery gift. He starts playing with it and lands himself in an incredible adventure. What child didn't walk into their room every day after reading the book with the knowledge that anything could happen? (Isn't that an enormous thought -- both the good reality and bad reality of the statement.)
The story behind the book itself gives that same sort of hope to writers: anything could happen when we release our projects into the world. Juster never set out to write a timeless children's book. Having his book become this successful is his own personal tollbooth that unexpectedly dropped into his life. It's a reminder that the best adventures aren't the ones we orchestrate, but the ones that we find ourselves in, being led from moment to moment in wonder.
I've told this story before, but it's especially poignant to me on the fiftieth anniversary of the book. I discovered the book when I was in first grade in the school library. I loved it so much that I refused to read the last page, choosing instead to skip it and go back to the beginning. I checked out that book numerous times that year (and even advocated for myself when the school librarian insisted I lost the book. Lost the book! I would never lose something that precious. I grabbed it off the shelf to show her, and she realized with an apology that she had never checked it back in). My own children are now in first grade, and I volunteer in their school library. I have checked that book in numerous times; replaced it on the shelf with care.
It was the book that made me decide that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to create a character that I loved as much as Milo.
Years later, I was living in Amherst, getting my MFA in creative writing at University of Massachusetts. I owned many copies of the book, but that didn't stop me from purchasing the new 35th anniversary edition. I flipped over the book one night and read that Norton Juster lived in Amherst, Massachusetts. My heart started sounding in my ears -- I lived in Amherst, Massachusetts. I grabbed the white pages (because back then, children, we had to look up addresses and telephone numbers in huge books... if you can believe that) and discovered that he lived 4 BLOCKS AWAY. He was 4 blocks from my commune. 4 blocks that would only take a few minutes to walk.
I polled my fellow commune mates and asked them if they thought I should call him. Even though everyone advised me to wait until morning, I couldn't calm myself down to think clearly. I called him at home around 9 pm, and he answered the phone. Rather than berate me for calling so late, he good-naturedly informed me that I wasn't the first person to call him like this. After I explained how overwhelmed I was -- it was literally like talking to Superman -- I told him how the reason I was in Amherst at all was because of him. He made me love books, and in turn, made me want to create books. I told him that it would mean the world to me if I could take him out for coffee.
And with all of the kindness of Tock, Mr. Juster invited me over to his house for tea. After work, I dressed up in a red checkered dress, and tied my hair into two braids. I walked the 4 blocks between our houses and almost chickened out on the front lawn. I am so glad that I took a deep breath and knocked because it turned out to be one of the greatest afternoons of my life. There is nothing quite like getting to have tea with your idol on his porch.
I got the opportunity recently to talk to Mr. Juster again, to interview him now that the book is turning 50. The construction of the book has been well-covered in Adam Gopnik's piece in the New Yorker, or Norton Juster's essay on All Things Considered. There's a movie being created for the 50th anniversary.
Once you start poking around for Phantom Tollbooth articles, you realize how your own love is just a drop in the Sea of Knowledge. That there is an enormous wave of love for this book that swells over literature; other people who say that they owe their love of reading to this book, that it also made them want to become a writer. And that's one of the points we touched on in the conversation; trying to understand what about the book made so many people want to become writers themselves.
Juster is somewhat amazed by the reaction to the book. His best guess is that "For many kids, it's the first time they've confronted something where they feel a kindred spirit in terms of their consciousness and their understanding of things."
I agree that is one reason why people fall in love with the book so deeply. Knowledge-wise, it's like a gift that takes years to open. Everyone loves that moment when they're tearing off the wrapping paper, still hopeful about what is inside, and the book introduced word play so seamlessly that readers are able to process the book on a multitude of levels. When I was six, Short Shrift was just a tiny policeman. When I was older and learned the term, Short Shrift was the embodiment of scant attention. And it felt like I was let in on a joke, let in on the adult world -- one word play at a time. The word play comes from interactions with Juster's father.
The other great influence is my father who is one of those addicted word play people. He was a punster and he would turn everything upside down. As a kid, your first reaction, of course, is uuuuuh. Because you don't get it. And then after a while you suddenly realize, I get it, I understand it, and I can do it. Do you know how liberating that is?
Another message I took from the book was learning for learning's sake; the joy in knowing things. It's the anti-teaching-to-the-test novel. It takes the virtual desks of the world and tosses them aside in favour of exploring, asking questions, and getting one's hands dirty in knowledge. Personally, I am always a little wary when I meet a teacher who hasn't read The Phantom Tollbooth. Juster admits that while the idea of knowledge for knowledge sake was never an intentional plot point, it is obvious looking back on the book that it was there all along.
The joy of learning is a very important component when you read through it. One of the unique things that kids have is a way of finding alternative view points; alternative ways to think about something or approach an idea. One of the aims of our educational system is to drive that out of your consciousness as quickly as possible. They teach as if there was almost only one view point to anything. A story has a meaning, and that's the story. I remember as a kid, and I still see it because I taught so many years, that kids will read something and they will tell you about it, and it's very much not like what the author would say or the teacher would say, but it is the way they understand it. And that's terribly important. You can never lose that; that unique view point.
It's a lesson he learned the hard way growing up, when he'd come to school excited to share how he interpreted a story, and be met with the message: that wasn't correct. Regurgitation of information is about as appetizing as... well... regurgitation of food, yet it is the backbone of our educational system at times. And Juster's book seeks to do away with that idea that there is only one point of view as well as banish the ennui contained in "I don't know." And that mentality is something he holds his child and grandchild to as well: that there are answers to be plucked off the figurative trees if you just reach up your arm. He told a story about his granddaughter and when she uses the phrase, "I don't know."
I don't know is half a sentence. And I said, "Do you know what the other half is?" She now looks at me and says, "but I'll find out."
Additionally, beyond his love of knowledge, it was his background in architecture that had a huge impact on the construction of the book.
Had I not studied architecture I either would have not been a writer at all or I would have been a much different writer. Because working in architecture, number one, what you do when you are doing architecture is you're looking for ... a very special way to look at something or an alternative way to look at something to turn out a project. So that mode of thinking feeds exactly into the book the way I write, and I think the way other people write. Secondly, I find that it's very important to me to visualize. I work in pictures a lot in my head. And I think I can only do that because of the architectural training, which is a very graphic kind of thing. In fact, many times I will make notes which will be a few words, pictures, diagrams -- everything -- and when I put them away, I can take them out six months later and I still remember exactly where my thoughts were because I have that tool. Again, it's not something I would have been doing had I not studied architecture ... I always tell people that I think studying architecture is the best liberal arts education you can get because it touches everything.
The idea that one art form supports another is the basis of many MFA program's requirements that students obtain a certain amount of credits in an outside though related medium. At the time, I didn't understand how taking six credits of visual art was going to make me a better writer, but listening to Norton Juster, I'm convinced that the outside credits are not a happy accident meant to give you additional skills outside your area of study. Rather, like many things in life, they are skills applicable to enhancing your range of knowledge within your given field.
As our phone conversation wound down, I flipped to the front page of the copy I was holding that he had signed that day during graduate school while we had tea on his porch. In the inscription, he said he was glad I called the night before, again, reminding me of the character Tock, who good-naturedly comes along for the ride, always happy to help out Milo on his adventure. Jules Feiffer, the illustrator, may have drawn Juster into the book as The Whether Man, but in my eyes, he is pure Tock, giving us a piece of literature that uses our time wisely.