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My Accidental Masterpiece: The Phantom Tollbooth

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 25, 2011

Norton Juster is the author of The Phantom Tollbooth.

“There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes but always. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in … Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.”

It was, of course, the doldrums — his own special version of them.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of that bored child’s transformative journey. The Phantom Tollbooth was the first book I had ever written and my first collaboration with the cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who provided the marvelous illustrations.

Like most good things that have happened in my life, The Phantom Tollbooth came about because I was trying to avoid doing something else. It was 1958, and after three years in the Navy I returned to New York City to work as an architect. I had also received a grant to do a book on cities for children. I started with great energy and enthusiasm until I found myself waist-deep in stacks of 3-by-5 note cards, exhausted and dispirited. This is not what I wanted to do.

In order to stop thinking about cities, I had to start thinking about something else.

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.

Coming home from school one day, Milo finds an unexpected gift: a highway tollbooth, a map and directions to a place called the Lands Beyond.

So off he goes on his journey of discovery. He travels to Dictionopolis, the kingdom of words, to Digitopolis, the land of numbers, escapes from the doldrums, goes astray by jumping to the Island of Conclusions and at last rescues the two princesses, Rhyme and Reason, from the Castle in the Air.

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 disorients them.

The prevailing wisdom of the time held that learning should be more accessible and less discouraging. The aim was that no child would ever have to confront anything that he or she didn’t already know.

But my feeling is 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. They still get bored and confused, and still struggle to figure out the important questions of life.

Well, one thing has changed: As many states eliminate tolls on highways, some children may never encounter a real tollbooth.

Luckily there are other routes to the Lands Beyond. And it is possible to seek them, and fun to try. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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