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Norton Juster, mischievous author of the children’s classic ‘The Phantom Tollbooth,’ dies at 91

Author Norton Juster at his home in 2011.
Author Norton Juster at his home in 2011.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Norton Juster didn’t set out to write the children’s classic “The Phantom Tollbooth,” or any other book for that matter.

“I had no interest in becoming a writer,” he told the Globe in 2014. “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.”

An architect whose most enduring creation was constructing a fanciful land of puns and unexpected pleasures for children and parents alike, Mr. Juster was 91 when he died in his Northampton home Monday of complications from a stroke.

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As he dodged other duties while writing “Phantom Tollbooth,” Mr. Juster gave some of his own dreamy childhood sensibilities to the book’s main character, Milo — a boy beset by boredom.

“Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered,” Mr. Juster wrote of Milo as the tale begins. “Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.”

On a listless day, Milo traveled through a magic tollbooth in his bedroom and found himself in the Kingdom of Wisdom. As he traveled through places such as the Foothills of Confusion, the Valley of Sound, and the Mountain of Ignorance, he encountered the likes of the Threadbare Excuse, the Gross Exaggeration, and the Gorgons of Hate and Malice.

“His singular quality was being mischievous,” Jules Feiffer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who illustrated the book, said in a statement of Mr. Juster. “He saw humor as turning everything on its head. It’s incredible the effect he had on millions of readers who turned ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ into something of a cult or a religion.”

Children saw themselves in Milo, as did parents who perhaps enjoyed the book’s playful prose even more than young readers.

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“To those who might wonder whether children will grasp Mr. Juster’s subtleties, I can only quote one well-read 11-year-old who reported it ‘the cleverest book I have ever read,’ ” Ann McGovern wrote in a 1961 New York Times review, the year the book was published. “Youngsters who drive through the tollbooth with Milo will probably, in the midst of their laughter, digest some important truth of life. And so will parents.”

The book went on to sell millions of copies, and has been adapted into an opera and the 1970 film with Butch Patrick (Eddie in the TV show “The Munsters”) as Milo.

An architect by training, Mr. Juster cofounded the Juster Pope Associates firm in Shelburne Falls and taught at Hampshire College from its founding in 1970 until he retired in 1992.

He designed Hampshire’s Emily Dickinson Hall and the Charles and Polly Longsworth Arts Village, and after he retired, his firm designed the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst.

Earl Pope, who had team-taught at Hampshire with Mr. Juster and shared a campus office, recalled for Hampshire’s tribute that “students would wait outside to meet him because they were thrilled to meet the author of the book. He would modestly thank them, and then ask, ‘But what do you want to do?’ "

In a 2001 Globe interview, Mr. Juster said he was well-suited for a career of teaching, designing, and writing because he could only do two at once, and knowing that a third pursuit awaited made him happy.

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Living at the time in Amherst, he wrote in an office at home where electronic equipment was absent and No. 2 pencils were abundant.

As an architect, “if you spend 5 percent of your time doing what you like to do, you’re lucky,” he noted.

That’s why, in semi-retirement, he chose to spend most of his time writing.

“All I have to do in the morning,” he said, “is face the terrors of the blank sheet of paper.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 2, 1929, Norton Juster was a son of Samuel Juster and Minnie Silberman.

His father was an architect who loved puns. Mr. Juster credited him, along with Marx Brothers movies, with inspiring his own love of wordplay.

“I was kind of a dreamy kid, sort of very introverted. I kind of intimidated my parents, I guess, because they never knew what was going to come out of my mouth,” he told the Globe. “They were very nice and I wasn’t ostracized or anything, but they kind of left me alone, and I was most of the time inside my own head.”

Mr. Juster graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and studied at the University of Liverpool in England as a Fulbright scholar.

He also served in the Navy’s civil engineer corps before becoming an architect in New York City.

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While stationed in Newfoundland with the Navy, “there was nothing to do,” he told the Globe. “You could go crazy, so I started writing and illustrating, doing watercolors and hanging them up.”

One day his commanding officer told him he “was demoralizing the battalion because I had these little pictures of elves and fairies and castles and things on the walls, drying, the watercolors,” Mr. Juster said in an interview on the Reading Rockets website. “And that the Navy men didn’t do that sort of thing, so I had to stop.”

Once Mr. Juster was back in New York, he began writing “The Phantom Tollbooth” while sharing a Brooklyn apartment with Feiffer, who would illustrate the book.

“He had never done anything for children before, and I had never done any serious writing that I thought would get published. It was two blind mice,” Mr. Juster told the Globe. “You can’t imagine how much fun it was putting out a book with every old joke I ever knew.”

For 54 years Mr. Juster was married to Jeanne Ray Juster, who died in 2018. She had studied graphic design at the New School and had worked for the publishing houses.

Mr. Juster leaves his daughter, Emily of Amherst, and a granddaughter. Plans for a celebration of his life have not yet been announced.

Though best known for “The Phantom Tollbooth,” Mr. Juster wrote other books including “Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys,” illustrated by Domenico Gnoli, and “Otter Nonsense,” illustrated by Eric Carle. Mr. Juster reteamed with Feiffer for “The Odious Ogre.”

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Mr. Juster’s book “The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics,” was made into an Academy Award-winning animated short film by Chuck Jones.

Early in his career, Mr. Juster’s editors worried that his wordplay and the words he used in “Tollbooth” might be too challenging for children.

“I find that kids are just as smart as adults,” he told the Globe. “There’s no such thing as a difficult word; it’s just a word you haven’t seen yet.”

And throughout his life, Mr. Juster remained pleasantly surprised at his first book’s success.

“It never ran away like, say, a Harry Potter. It had a nice sale and every year since it’s sort of gone up a little bit,” he told the Globe in 2011.

“A kid asked me at a school one day not so long ago, ‘Mr. Juster, did you know your book was going to last for 48 years?’ And I looked at him and said, ‘I didn’t know it was going to last for 48 minutes.’ It’s really true. You just don’t know.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.