A large dog with an alarm clock for a body (a "watchdog," if you will). A giant bee who 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 at his home in Northampton, Mass. 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 told the story of Milo, a young boy utterly bored and disaffected with the world around him until a mysterious and magical tollbooth shows up. He drives his toy car through and 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, N.Y., 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 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 disoriented 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.
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 on architecture. In 1970, he opened his own firm and had a long career as a professor of design at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., 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 still maintained Juster's style of playing with language and learning. In the book, the Ogre expanded his vocabulary by eating a dictionary as he was consuming a librarian.
"I couldn't resist that," Juster said.