Saturday, December 3, 2011

Day 3: Happy 50th, Milo! You've Never Looked Better

Welcome to Day 3 in our 24 Days of Books. Today in honor of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, I'm going to talk about one of my all-time favorite books, forever and ever and ever,  The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. It's quite amazing to me that the book is now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary -- I can't possibly be that old.

The book tells the story of Milo, who is always bored and who comes home from school one day to find a large package containing a tollbooth, three precautionary signs, some coins for tolls, a map, and a book of rules and traffic regulations. He climbs into the small electric automobile he hadn't driven in months, and off he goes on his adventures in Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, soon to be accompanied by a watchdog named Tock.

As a child I loved the wordplay and puns of the book and all of the wonderful characters: the Humbug, Officer Shrift (he was short), Faintly Macabre, the Whether Man and the Senses Taker, King Azaz (The Unabridged) of Dictionopolis and his brother, the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis, and of course King Azaz's advisers: The Duke of Definition, the Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, the Count of Connotation, and the Undersecretary of Understanding -- and many many more. As I grew older, and continued to re-read the book, I delighted in the satire and wit, the double entendres and the humor. It's just darned fun, for readers of any age.

To commemorate the book's fiftieth anniversary, Random House has just published The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth,” with notes by Leonard Marcus; and a fiftieth-anniversary edition, with a series of short essays by notable readers about the effect the book has had on their lives.

The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth tells the fascinating story of the book and of the author and illustrator. Here is a tiny snapshot of what we learn (but there is so much more the book offers): Norton Juster was born in  Brooklyn in 1929, just two months before the onset of the Great Depression, his father a Romanian-born Jew who immigrated to the US as a young boy, and his mother coming from a hardscrabble Polish-Jew family. His older (by four years) brother Howard was a golden boy who breezed through life ahead of Norton, leaving him in his shadow.

Juster's father and brother were both architects, and he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's school of fine arts assuming he too would build a career as an architect. After earning his Bachelor of Architecture degree, Juster went to England on a Fulbright Scholarship to study civic design/urban planning.

In 1954 he enlisted in the military, joining the Civil Engineer Corps of the United States Naval Reserve. While stationed in Newfoundland, he began to write and illustrate a story for children, to combat the misery and boredom. His final posting took him back to Brooklyn, and a small basement ("garden") apartment, where he eventually became acquainted with one of his neighbors, Jules Feiffer, who was then writing a cartoon strip for the Village Voice.

That meeting led eventually to the partnership that created The Phantom Tollbooth -- written by Juster after he had quit his architecture job after receiving a grant from the Ford Foundation to write a book on urban planning (a book he never did write) -- and published by Epstein & Carroll in September 1961. At first the book went nowhere. Juster's mother, Minnie, "terrorized" booksellers on her son's behalf. Then, spectacular reviews began to appear: the New Yorker, the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Times. Jane Jacobs, the urban-design critic and neighborhood activist (and a friend of Juster's), wrote in the Village Voice that book derived its special flavor from a fusion of the "most outrageous fantasy" with an "urgent and vivid sense of reality." And she wrote of Feiffer, the illustrator, that he is "a man who can draw an idea."

The annotated book contains the entire text of The Phantom Tollbooth, accompanied by annotations which draw upon interviews with Juster and Feiffer and Juster's notes and drafts and  that provide cultural and literary commentary, artistic context and background, and other commentary by Marcus, a nationally acclaimed writer on children's literature.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, wrote about the anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, it's beginnings, and its continuing appeal to readers of all ages, speaking with both Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer. Here are some of the comments from that article (but please do read the entire article):

The Phantom Tollbooth was signed and edited by Jason Epstein. Says Juster: "He was a wonderful editor, and he used to scare the hell out of me. At a certain point, he’d stop and say, ‘It’s your book. Do what you want with it.’ I’d get rigid.”

The book was published in 1961, and no one had much hope that it would find an audience. “Everyone said this is not a children’s book, the vocabulary is much too difficult, the wordplay and the punning they will never understand, and anyway fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them,” Juster said, four million copies later.

The other shaping experience was listening to the radio. As both artists stress, having a pure stream of sound as your major source of entertainment meant that your mind was already working imaginatively, without your necessarily realizing it. “It’s impossible today!” Feiffer said. “Everything is visual."

Milo [whom Gopnik describes as "not very actively parented"] is also one of the few protagonists in children’s literature—Dorothy is another—who have a wiser best friend throughout their journey, in this case Tock, the watchdog. Just as Dorothy learns from the smart Scarecrow, Milo learns from Tock’s timekeeper’s knowledge. Milo doesn’t educate himself; he gets educated. His epiphany is that math and reading and even spelling are themselves subjects of adventure, if seen from the right angle. The point of The Phantom Tollbooth is not that there’s more to life than school; it’s that normal school subjects can be wonderful if you don’t have to experience them as normal schooling.

For The Phantom Tollbooth is not just a manifesto for learning; it is a manifesto for the liberal arts, for a liberal education, and even for the liberal-arts college....Juster was writing a comic hymn to the value of the liberal arts at a moment of their renaissance, buoyed as they were by the G.I. Bill and new cadres of students.

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