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50 Years of The Phantom Tollbooth – Q&A with Leonard Marcus

November 10, 2011

Lucky us, today we are joined by Children’s Book Expert Leonard Marcus and he’s answering our questions about The Phantom Tollbooth and The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth. Both of these books were released recently celebrating the 50th Anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, honoring author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer. 


Here’s Leonard Marcus:

When did you first read The Phantom Tollbooth? How many times have you read it since? And did you like it the first time?

I didn’t read it until after I’d become interested in the history of children’s books as an undergraduate at Yale, and started catching up on the classics I’d missed as a child. I had read Lewis Carroll as an 11- or 12-year-old, and when I dipped into The Phantom Tollbooth my first thought was, “Wow! This is the Alice in Wonderland of our time!” The slapstick mayhem and verbal high jinks seemed a lot like Carroll’s. As a kid I had always wanted a battery-operated car like Milo’s, so the book touched all kinds of memory buttons for me, too.

     I don’t know how many times I’ve re-read Phantom since then, but it must be a high number as my paperback copy is currently held together by a jumbo Staples binder clip. I find that the book never stops being funny—and wise.

What books or authors would you recommend to fans of The Phantom Tollbooth? Is there anything that you’d recommend to a fan looking for something like it?

A child who loves The Phantom Tollbooth might enjoy the verbal sophistication and droll humor of Lemony Snicket; Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School; Marvin Turban’s word play books; the lighter side of Edward Gorey; Terry Pratchett’s younger fantasies, starting with the Bromeliad Trilogy; and maybe some of James Thurber.


What’s it like working with Norton & Jules?

It was a great experience on both counts.

I met Norton first. He was a partner in the architectural firm that designed the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and I was and am a founding trustee of the museum. So, I would see Norton at the earliest museum gatherings, and we got to know each other just a little. Then, when I did my book of conversations with funny writers for kids, Funny Business (Candlewick), Norton agreed to be one of the writers I interviewed. When we got together for that interview, I saw right away that he had a lot more stories to tell than I could possibly fit into a few pages. That’s when I asked him if he liked the idea of my writing an annotated edition of The Phantom Tollbooth. He did like it, and of course so did Jules and Random House. Once the project got under way, Norton was extremely generous with his time. We met for several more conversations and talked on the phone often. He sent me a big box of old reviews, clippings, family photographs, and other items of possible use for my research. And he jotted down his memories of writing the book page by page in a detailed series of notes that I quoted from throughout the Annotated edition. He was always fun to talk with, too, of course, and he never asked to see what I was doing. I was really grateful for that and was thrilled, when I finally did show the manuscript to him, that he really liked it.

     Jules and I got together both for a background interview for the book and to go through art work for the exhibition I have just curated at the Eric Carle Museum, called “Growing Every Which Way But Up: The Children’s Book Art of Jules Feiffer.” He too could not have been more patient or generous, not only with his time but also by making any image from his vast archive available for use in the Annotated book. Jules, Norton, and I never got together as a threesome until after the book was finished, but we were all in such close touch during the year and a half or so that it was in the works, that that made very little difference.

Did you learn anything new about the book or the author and illustrator?

Well, plenty. Here are a few things. Norton is a fanatical list maker and when he was writing Phantom he jotted down endless lists of idiosyncratic words and idioms, many of which became the basis for jokes or even entire scenes in the book. He would build up a kind of war chest of words, and then see what he could make out of them. An amazing way to work, I thought.

     One surprising thing about Jules, given the casual, improvised look of his drawings, is that he is a fanatical reviser. In fact, he drew the illustrations for Phantom on the cheapest paper he could find, knowing that he was going to want to do some of them over and over again. Several of those outtakes are published for the first time in the Annotated edition, side by side with the finishes.

     I loved finding out that Jules and Norton, who have always been a kind of Abbott and Costello comedy team when they’re together, tried to trip each other up as they collaborated on the book. Norton created characters, like the “ world’s tallest midget” and “fattest thin man,” that Jules might find impossible to draw. Jules in turn caricatured Norton in his illustration of the Whether Man and—because he did not enjoy drawing animals—drew one more rider than horse in the battle scene near the end of the story.

What’s your favorite part of The Phantom Tollbooth?

Being a word person, I love the scenes in Digitopolis when the king’s advisers all speak in synonyms. Norton told me that when the copyeditor read these passages in manuscript, he deleted most the synonyms on the grounds that the author was repeating himself!

Have you shared The Phantom Tollbooth with your family?

I dedicated the Annotated edition “to a Milo named Jacob.” Jacob is my nineteen-year-old son. He read Phantom for the first time in the Annotated edition. One reason I dedicated the book to him is that Jacob has always done things in his own time and in his own way, just as Milo learns to do. So, coming to the book when and how he did is, I think, just another illustration of that.

Norton and Jules were neighbors in Brooklyn Heights when this book was written and illustrated. You live in the same neighborhood now. Do you ever see ghosts of Phantom Tollbooth characters wandering around?

I wouldn’t be surprised if I see a few on Halloween. Jules had a slightly spooky experience there recently. He and Norton and I had our picture taken on the steps of the row house where The Phantom Tollbooth was created. No one was home that day, but both Norton and Jules knew that their landlady from 1960 was still the owner/occupant of the building. So, Jules went back another day and rang the doorbell. When the woman came to the door—and this was the first time they had seen each other in fifty years—the first thing she said was, “You left something here.” She disappeared for a few moments and returned with a handful of drawings he had left in a cupboard!

Norton, Leonard & Jules (photo credit Janice Kaplan)

What do you think made The Phantom Tollbooth a classic?

When readers meet Milo he’s bored out of his mind, in large part because school and the world in general that adults have laid out for him does not make much sense to him. Most children can identify with that feeling. Then something magical happens to lift him out of his boredom. Every child wishes for that, and so can connect with Milo’s story in its fantasy aspect too. Throughout the course of Milo’s adventures, he faces tricky, very life-like choices: who to befriend, who to beware of, which way to turn. And while all this is going on at the narrative level, amazing things are happening in the words and pictures–silly, inventive, slapstick, Marx Brothers-like nuttiness and brilliance. It all comes together in the realization that gradually sets in for Milo that meeting the world in an open, flexible, and essentially playful manner, with as few expectations and prejudgements as possible, is the best recipe for navigating a life riddled with uncertainties and surprises. Gradually, Milo comes to trust his ability to think his way through all the confusing times. By the end of his travels, he is anything but bored, and is able to find a world of interest in his own room. I think everyone wants to feel they can handle their “journey” just as Milo learns to do. It makes for a satisfying conclusion to a story that is also jam-packed with wildly imagined characters and turns of language.

Have you ever seen Norton Juster do a New York Times crossword puzzle?

No, but I have seen “The Phantom Tollbooth” as an answer in a Boston Globe puzzle. And I’m a fanatical crossword puzzler myself. Every week, I wait for the Thursday puzzle, which is the first one that is really pretty hard, and I puzzle onward to Sunday; and yes, I too am an ink-only person.

Do you have the inside scoop on whether or not there will ever be a sequel to Milo’s adventures?

Norton says no–because Milo’s great discovery is to learn to appreciate his own everyday world. He realizes there is plenty to wonder about and do right there. True, the tollbooth could be passed on to someone else. But Norton has always been a restless spirit. I think he would rather take off each time in a new direction.

Do you know if the Wizard of Oz and its strange alternate world where the ordinary becomes extraordinary influenced Tollbooth?

Yes, it certainly did, and I’ve written a lot about that in The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth. For one thing, the Wizard turns out to a “humbug,” or charlatan, and he was one of the models for Phantom’s Humbug. A quest that leads to a shimmering city that isn’t all it seems to be, a motley bunch of buddies meet on the road, a Good Witch (or “Which”)—all this comes out of Baum’s imagination but always with a delicious twist that is pure Norton Juster.


Many thanks to Leonard Marcus for joining us at RAoR today and for sharing your insights about The Phantom Tollbooth. Readers, if you want to know more you can find The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth at your favorite bookstore or library, or maybe you’ll be adding it to your holiday wish list!

Bonus! Here’s a link to a great article about all of the Phantom Tollbooth covers from around the world.

Comments and questions always welcome in our comments section.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2011 9:57 am

    This was one of my husband’s favorite books as a child, but I had never read it. When we were first married, he introduced me to it, and I have to say it was delightful! I am glad to see this post and glad the annotated version has been released. Great post today!

  2. November 10, 2011 12:47 pm

    50 years? Wow, that makes me feel old. I remember reading this one as child!

  3. November 10, 2011 3:05 pm

    I love, love, love this book! My sixth-grade teacher had us read it as a class, and I in turn have shared it with my students. After 30+ times through this book, I can think of no better read aloud. To speak these words is perfection.

    My beloved copy is also falling apart. Just this year, a friend took it with her to the SCBWI summer conference so that Norton Juster might sign it for me. Jules Feiffer had signed it years before.

    My greatest pleasure was to share The Phantom Tollbooth with my own boys earlier this year. So looking forward to this annotated version!

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