Norton Juster June 2, 1929-March 8 2021
Some Thoughts From Our Children’s Librarian, Laura Ford, on Norton Juster.
Norton Juster, most famous for his book The Phantom Tollbooth, died last week. Which is, of course, a sad thing. He was a classic figure in Children’s Literature, and The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic book.
Here’s where I make a big confession … I didn’t read The Phantom Tollbooth as a child. It was published in 1961, which certainly made it readily available during my childhood, I just never came across it. And ok, when I did come across it, it seemed like it involved math, which I’m embarrassed to say was NOT my thing, so I didn’t pick it up. Fast forward a few years, and I became a Children’s Librarian. And not just a Children’s Librarian, but a Children’s Librarian in FALMOUTH. There’s a certain amount of responsibility to being a Children’s Librarian in Falmouth. People here know their books. And they deserve a librarian who’s read the classics. So believe you me, I read The Phantom Tollbooth, and plenty of other classics I’d missed along the way.
It’s a story about a boy named Milo who is bored, bored, bored. (Sound familiar?) Milo is so bored that when a large package appears out of nowhere in his bedroom, he’s barely interested enough to open it, and when it reveals a toll booth, he hops in his boy-sized toy car and drives on through, only because he hasn’t got anything better to do. And drives on into history.
Does everyone have to read The Phantom Tollbooth? Certainly not. But at at almost 5 million copies sold since it was first published (and one would have to assume that some of those copies are in a library and were read more than once,) it certainly is worth a try. If sales numbers don’t impress you, try it because it has won a slew of awards, including the Parent’s Choice Book Award and the MSRI/CBC Mathical Books for Kids from Tots to Teens. (See? That award, right there, would’ve kept me away from it. But I digress.)
Here are a few quotes, because the PT is infinitely quotable:
“You can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and not get wet.”
“It’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”
“I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”
The Humbug dropped his needle and stared in disbelief while Milo and Tock began to back away slowly.
“Don’t try to leave,” he ordered, with a menacing sweep of his arm, “for there’s so very much to do, and you still have over eight hundred years to go on the first job.”
“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.
“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin – if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing, and if it weren’t for that dreadful magic staff, you’d never know how much time you were wasting.”
Still not sure it’s for you (and/or your kids?) Try it in audio. It’s available as a book on cd AND in downloadable audio. (You will have to put it on hold though. It has come to the attention of scores of people now that the author has passed.) It’s available in an annotated version, and in Spanish. And listen, if it just doesn’t appeal to you, I understand. No hard feelings. There other roads into Norton Juster’s work. Try The Hello, Goodbye Window, illustrated by Chris Raschka, or The Odious Ogre, illustrated by Jules Feiffer (who just so happens to be the illustrator of a certain book about a tollbooth…) My favorite of Juster’s picture books is Neville, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. It’s fabulous to read aloud to a group of kids, given that the characters spend quite a bit of time yelling…..”Neville!” There’s a plot twist on the last page, which many kids figure out way ahead of time. I LOVE it when kids figure out the plot twist ahead of time.