I’m not often greatly affected by “celebrity” deaths, beyond a mild “Oh, that’s a shame.” Two weeks ago, however, when my son sent me a brief message asking simply “Did you hear that Norton Juster has died?” I felt as if someone had punched me in the gut.
Juster was an architect and planner, and professor emeritus of design at Hampshire College, but his claim to fame is as the author of several acclaimed children’s books, one of which was The Phantom Tollbooth, first published in 1961 and instantly hailed as a classic.
The book tells the story of a young, terminally bored boy named Milo, who one day finds a mysterious tollbooth in his apartment, along with a map to The Lands Beyond and an instruction leaflet that ends with the words “Results are not guaranteed, but if not perfectly satisfied, your wasted time will be refunded.”
Having nothing better to do, Milo jumps in his miniature car, drives through the tollbooth, and finds himself in The Lands Beyond. To try to summarize the book would be fruitless; suffice it to say that Juster creates one of the most magical, enchanting, fantastic, frightening, mystifying, and delightful adventures ever committed to paper.
Saying that the book had an effect on me would be as much an understatement as claiming that water tends to be wet. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that The Phantom Tollbooth changed my life, and set me on the path to where I am now, 47 years after my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Hehn, introduced me to it by reading it aloud to our class.
By age 10 I was a voracious reader, devouring fairly stolid children’s fare such as Nancy Drew, the Famous Five, and Trixie Belden, books whose prose was workmanlike at best: it got the job done, but that was all. Tollbooth took my breath away with its flights of fancy and giddy wordplay, which I only truly began to appreciate when I bought a paperback copy through the Scholastic Book Club a short while later and was able to read it for myself. That was when Juster’s brilliance really shone, in characters such as Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Which, or the Whether Man (“It’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be”).
There was the Senses (not census) Taker, and King Azaz the Unabridged, and the Mathemagician. There was loyal Tock, the (literal) watchdog, and the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, ready to take the words right out of your mouth. “Perhaps we should wait until morning,” says Milo, to which the Wordsnatcher replies “They’ll be mourning for you soon enough.” There was the Island of Expectations, which can only be reached by jumping, and the Mountains of Ignorance, inhabited by such terrible creatures as the Threadbare Excuse, the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, and the Gross Exaggeration.
It was the first time I had experienced the true magic of the written word, and seen what a brilliant mind could do with the English language. Everyday things and concepts suddenly took on new, playful meaning. Here were puns and double entendres, irony and allusion, intellectual absurdity; things I did not know I had lacked, or which even existed, until Juster’s book came into my life. I had been sitting in a dim-lit room, and suddenly someone had turned on the lights.
At the end of the book, when he has successfully completed his quest, Milo is given a piece of information that had been withheld earlier: that it was impossible. However, as King Azaz and the Mathemagician explain, “If we’d told you then, you might not have gone — and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”
It is a piece of advice I have never forgotten. Thank you, Mr. Juster; I am forever indebted, appreciative, grateful, glad, and beholden to you and your wonderful work.