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Kids' Book Club Takes 'Tollbooth' To Lands Beyond

Welcome to the second installment of NPR's Backseat Book Club! Every month, we invite kids to read a book along with us, and then send in their questions for the author.

Our book club selection for November is a classic that's celebrating a big anniversary. The Phantom Tollbooth — written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer — was published 50 years ago. Juster tells NPR's Michele Norris that the story sprang from his own childhood.

"It was about a little boy, about 9 or 10 years old, who didn't much like school, didn't see the point of learning, didn't like doing much of anything — and of course that was me," Juster says.

The little boy in the story is named Milo. He lives in a state of constant boredom until one day a tollbooth magically appears in his bedroom with a map and a series of strange instructions. Milo dusts off an old toy car and drives through the tollbooth to the Lands Beyond.

Milo has the adventure of a lifetime. He visits places like Digitopolis and Dictionopolis, and he meets people with silly habits and a very odd way of speaking. The book is so chock-full of puns, riddles and wordplay that publishers at first didn't think it was appropriate for kids.

"They said: 'Well, this is not a children's book ... Vocabulary's too difficult, the issues and ideas are much too complex. The kids will never get the jokes and wordplay,' " Juster recalls.

But they did — and Juster knew they would because he grew up in a household where linguistic absurdity was the norm. Every day his father had a new play on words to try out on his son. He used to put his arm around Juster and say things like: "You're a good kid, and I'd like to see you get ahead. You need one."

At first, Juster found his father's puns confusing. But slowly he got the hang of it. "I began to say, 'I understand that, and I can do that.' And that was a great, liberating part of my life," Juster says.

The Phantom Tollbooth had another major influence in addition to Juster's father. "When I grew up in the 1930s, all those Marx Brothers movies were coming out. And they were, of course, absolutely insane until you saw them two or three times and realized that their particular kind of insanity made as much sense as thinking about it in very realistic terms."

But it wasn't just the brilliant use of words that made The Phantom Tollbooth so successful. The illustrations by cartoonist Jules Feiffer don't just adorn the text — they're an essential part of the story, perfectly blending word and picture.

There's quite a story behind the partnership between Juster and Feiffer. "It's one of those marvelous accidents of life," Juster says.

Juster ran into Feiffer one day in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Juster was stationed. It was a chance meeting, but a year or so later, they were living together — along with one other friend — in a duplex apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Juster lived on the top floor, and Feiffer and the friend lived below.

"When I wrote, I paced. And the pacing, I guess, kind of got on their nerves," Juster says. "So Jules came up, wanted to know what I was doing, and read some of the stuff. And he liked it, went away without my knowing it, and produced a whole bunch of absolutely wonderful drawings. And to this day I cannot see that book any other way. That book, those illustrations belong together, and will never change."

Olivia Hughes, 10, a book club member from Richardson, Texas, particularly liked the map of the Lands Beyond at the very beginning of The Phantom Tollbooth. Turns out, there's a funny story behind how it got there. As a kid, many of the books that Juster loved had maps at the front — and he wanted the same thing for The Phantom Tollbooth. So he asked Feiffer to draw a map of the Lands Beyond — but didn't have much luck.

"There are certain things he either doesn't like to draw or doesn't think he can draw — and one of them was maps," Juster says. "And he said, 'I'm not going near a map.' (And actually, if you've ever driven anywhere with Jules, you will know why he doesn't like maps.) But anyway, I sat down and I drew the map. And then Jules took it and traced over it so it looked like his drawing."

Many young readers were curious to know more about Juster's life as a child. Emma, 12, from Springfield, Va., says she and her siblings like to make up stories together — and was wondering whether Juster did, too.

"All the time," he says. "I lived for stories."

Juster used to write short plays and then cast his family members in the leading roles. He, of course, got to be the director.

"Stories are a very important part of my life ... Even to this day, I don't think I can deal with important world issues or issues related to me as an adult without sometimes recasting them as stories," he says.

After 50 years, Juster is still flummoxed as to why his book turned out to be such a success. Children surprise you, he says. When they read a book, they may experience it or appreciate it in a way that's totally different than what the author intended. But that's OK, he says. Sometimes writers feel like their job is to communicate a specific idea or a finite point of view. "I think the idea rather is to open up a piece of the world to a more creative encounter," Juster says.

Norton Juster was born in Brooklyn in 1929. He is professor emeritus of design at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mas.
/ Courtesy of Norton Juster
Courtesy of Norton Juster
Norton Juster was born in Brooklyn in 1929. He is professor emeritus of design at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mas.

More Questions For Norton Juster

My favorite character was the green-eyed, curly-haired, big-foot, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, extremely enormous monster ... Have you met anyone like this lately? -- Phoebe Abbruzzese, 7, Longview, Wash.

"I meet people like that every day. They're the people who explain things in the way they want you to understand them ... That demon wants them to get very relaxed and easy so that the demons can come and destroy them ...

"All those demons that go through the book and appear finally at the end in their most frightening form were the demons that were my demons as a child and are still around. I still know all of those people very well, and I'm just a little bit better at avoiding them or sidestepping them."

Of all the amazing and fantastical inhabitants of the Lands Beyond, which was your favorite to write? -- GP Aroldi, sixth-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary in River Edge, N.J.

"There are a lot of them that I like, but some stick in mind: I love the midget giant fat man thin man. Because ... it was the only way I could ever understand relativity. ... You understand everything in terms of these four different people who are the same person; at least that's my way of thinking about it."

Tell us more about your writing process. -- Michele Norris

"Probably 80 to 90 percent of what I've written is nonsense, and I just throw it out. But there's always something in there that I can hang on to and make use of, and that's a very valuable thing ...

"I'm a virtuoso reviser anyway — I do things 20 and 30 times ... I will do a lot of revising to change the rhythm of a book ... I'll spend time putting an extra comma in, or taking a two-syllable word and making a three-syllable word in its place, or the reverse — always in the service of trying to keep that story moving at a pace that will engage the people reading it."

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