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the story behind the book | kate tuttle

‘Phantom Toolbooth’ creator keeps it smart

david wilson for the boston globe

“I had no interest in becoming a writer,” Norton Juster said. “I was really using it to get away from doing something I was supposed to be doing — which I find is one of the great motivations in my life.”

The result was his first book, the children’s classic, “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Published in 1961, it confounded adult experts — his editors worried that it would be a flop, Juster said, because of its sophisticated vocabulary, dizzying wordplay, inventive idea-driven plot, and “to top it off — because fantasy is bad for children, because it disorients them.”

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They were wrong, of course; the book, illustrated with verve by Jules Feiffer, has become an enduring classic, beloved by children for the very characteristics that worried its first adult readers. “I find that kids are just as smart as adults,” Juster said in a telephone interview. “There’s no such thing as a difficult word; it’s just a word you haven’t seen yet.”

But where does a book like that — about a bored boy named Milo, whose journeys in the land beyond include stops in the towns of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis — come from, anyway?

“I’ve always had a strange way of thinking about things,” Juster explained. “When I was a kid I had something called synesthesia. In my particular case, it manifested itself by the fact that I simply couldn’t deal with numbers without colors. I gave my parents a terribly difficult time because they never knew what I was talking about.”

Later books included “The Dot and the Line,” which Juster describes as “a mathematical romance between a dot, a line, and a squiggle.” In 2005 came “The Hello, Goodbye Window,” in which his own young granddaughter tells about spending the night with her Poppy and Nanna. She shows up again, with all her volatile moods, in 2008’s “Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie.”

“In about a week she’s going to be 18,” said Juster, “and she is now busy driving me crazy to take her around looking at colleges.”

Juster will speak at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Lecture Hall.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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