Celebrating 50 Years of


Read an interview with bestselling author
NORTON JUSTER—the original master of wordplay.

An interview with bestselling author

How was the book “born”?

A. I don’t think it was so much inspiration but rather avoidance. I had a grant to write a book for young people about
cities. I wanted to help children notice and appreciate the
world around them—to excite them and sharpen their
interest in an environment that they will eventually reshape.
So I was trying to get away from this thing I was supposed
to do, and working on this other “little story” seemed like a
good way to do it. It worked, and since then avoiding
something I have to do and picking up another project
instead has become a wonderfully inspirational and
energizing influence on my work.

Q. 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the The Phantom
Tollbooth. What elements of the book/story do you
think make it resonate with readers all these years
A. The world is quite a different place, but interestingly,
people and especially children are in many ways the same as
they’ve always been. They get bored, lonely, tired,
frightened, confused, and still struggle for the answers to
the important questions of life. When I wrote The Phantom
Tollbooth, I thought it was only about me and my particular
craziness. It has been reassuring, over the years, to learn that
the troubles and problems that I thought were so personal to
me are shared so widely. The letters I get now are not very
different from the ones I got when the book was first
published. One thing that has changed is that, as many states
have eliminated tolls on highways, there are some children
who are not sure what a tollbooth is. But rabbit holes are still
rabbit holes!

Q. You worked closely with the acclaimed Jules
Feiffer, who illustrated The Phantom Tollbooth.
How did you meet, and how did you collaborate on
the book?
A. At that time, I only knew Jules Feiffer. I did not yet know
the acclaimed Jules Feiffer. We met when we were both
renting rooms in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. He
claims we met while throwing out garbage. Actually, I was
throwing out garbage and he was looking for something
to eat.

Eventually, though, we became roommates, and he heard
me pacing in the room above his as I was working on the
book. When he came up to investigate, I showed him my
notes, and he began to illustrate them, without really being
asked. It became another way to tease and top each other.
Some characters in the story, like the Triple Demons of
Compromise, I must admit I concocted only to plague Jules.

Q. While you wrote the book for children, many
adults love and appreciate the book just as much as
children. Why do you think that is?

A. Well, I didn’t write the book for children. I wrote it for me,
so it seems natural that adults might like it—at least the ones
who retain some sense of their own childhood.
The issues that come up in the book about understanding
and perception are common to both adults and children, so
no matter who is reading it they can find something to
identify with. The whole process of life is learning to look at
things from more than one point of view, and that’s not
something that adults grow out of because they’ve stopped
being children.

Q. Do you have any favorite scenes in the book?
A. Almost all of the scenes are my favorites. Getting into
them was demanding work, and getting out of them was
miraculous. But some I particularly like: Milo’s interaction
with the giant, the midget, the thin man, and the fat man;
the character and point of view of Alec Bings, who was born
in the air and grows toward the ground; the scene with the
colorful symphony, which plays not music but the colors of
the world; and Faintly Macabre’s story and her obsession
with economic word use.

Q. What do you hope for
children to take away from
the book?
A. A sense of the pure pleasure
of reading, perhaps some new
ways of looking at things, and
the ideas that words are fun.
Anything else is up to them.

Illustrations © 1961, renewed 1989 by Jules Feiffer.

Q. What inspired you to write The Phantom Tollbooth?

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