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Remembering Norton Juster, Author Of 'The Phantom Tollbooth'


(Reading) There once was a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself not just sometimes but always.

That's the opening to "The Phantom Tollbooth," the classic 1961 children's book written by Norton Juster that became a staple in children's literature. Juster died yesterday at his home in Northampton, Mass. He was 91 years old. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: That opening line about Milo might as well have been about Norton Juster. In a 2011 essay for NPR marking the book's 50th anniversary, Juster reflected on his own childhood.


NORTON JUSTER: I had been an odd child, quiet, introverted and moody. When I grew up, I still felt like that puzzled kid - disconnected, disinterested and confused. There was no rhyme or reason in that kid's life.

LIMBONG: And so when a mysterious tollbooth shows up in Milo's room, he gets in because there's nothing better to do and gets transported to this world filled with wonder and wordplay. Here's Juster reading a section for NPR in 2010. In it, Milo meets five representatives of King Azaz the Unabridged, king of Dictionopolis, monarch of letters, emperor of phrases, sentences and miscellaneous figures of speech.


JUSTER: (Reading) We offer you the hospitality of our country, nation, state, commonwealth, realm, empire, palatinate, principality. Do all those words mean the same thing, asked Milo. Of course, certainly, precisely, exactly, yes, they replied in order.

LIMBONG: Norton Juster was born in Brooklyn in 1929. He didn't set out to be a writer. He was an architect. Then he got a grant to write a kid's book about cities. He tried but ran out of steam and ended up writing "The Phantom Tollbooth" instead. Juster told NPR in 2011 that at the time, he was living above his friend Jules Feiffer and was pacing while writing the book.


JUSTER: Jules came up, wanted to know what I was doing, read some of the stuff. And he liked it, went away without my knowing it and produced a whole bunch of absolutely wonderful drawings. And to this day I cannot see that book any other way.

LIMBONG: The book sold millions of copies, but Juster also heard from critics who said the wordplay was too much for kids, the vocabulary too hard - a notion Juster dismissed in his 2011 essay.


JUSTER: My feeling was that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don't know yet.

LIMBONG: For Norton Juster, writing was a side gig. He was an architect mainly and a professor of design. But he thought in stories as a kid and even as an adult, as he told NPR in 2011.


JUSTER: Even to this day, I don't think I can deal with issues relating to me as an adult without recasting them as stories.

LIMBONG: It was how that moody and disinterested kid found rhyme and reason in his life.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.