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Milo Forever

One of the nice but sort of odd things about being a KR blogger is that I can write about nearly anything I want. If I find myself at a great reading—listening to, say, Jamaal May, or Antonya Nelson, or Matthew Olzmann—I can file a dispatch from the field. (The field being, more often than not, a coffee shop.) If I read a new book that I can’t quite shake off—Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Hannah Sanghee Park’s The Same-Different—I can point to it, quote from it, review it without quite having to review it. (And now I’ve listed six readings and books that I could’ve, and probably should’ve, written about, but in fact didn’t.) I can write about politics, about comedy, about tennis. I can write about the horrifying fact that we live in a country where a Cincinnati cop can murder a person and then immediately tell his colleagues, “I think I’m OK. I’m OK.” (Message to the cop: You can’t ever again be OK.) I can write about a children’s book that was published before I was born.

Which brings me to my subject: The Phantom Tollbooth. My four-year-old daughter and I read it aloud earlier this year. (Or really, I read it aloud; she listened and occasionally tried to flip forward to find more pictures of Rhyme and Reason, the book’s estimable princesses.) Having kids, as those with children know, is to journey, again and again, through the back alleys of memory: We get to revisit haunts that were explored by our five-year-old and eight-year-old and eleven-year-old selves. I’m not sure how many times I read The Phantom Tollbooth as a child, but it must have been a handful, maybe more. The Doldrums! Dictionopolis! The Castle in the Air! All familiar. All permanently etched onto my mental map.

And I don’t know how anybody becomes anybody, but I have to imagine that my love of comic wordplay and my delight in seeing the expected turn unexpected owe something to Norton Juster’s 1961 fantasy. Milo and Tock and the Humbug and the Whether Man and King Azaz and Chroma and Dr. Dischord and the Mathemagician seem just as real to me now as they did forty years ago. And Milo’s final realization—that, “in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know—music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real”—remains a so-moving-I-can-barely-say-it-out-loud reading experience.

Norton Juster visited the University of Michigan a few months ago; my daughter and I attended the event. Juster, now in his mid-80s, described working in urban planning as a young man and thinking that it might be interesting to write about how kids experienced the city. (In the opening pages of The Phantom Tollbooth, Juster and his friend and illustrator Jules Feiffer present a map of “The Lands Beyond, Including a Description of the Several Towns, Boroughs and Municipalities Comprising the Kingdom of Wisdom.”) Juster poked fun at the prevailing publishing wisdom of the late Fifties, which held that “fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them.” He said that one of his goals for the book was “to use every old bad joke I knew; my father was a punster.” When kids hear a pun, he said, “They think, ‘Yes, I understand it and I can do it.’ And that’s power. . . . A lot of things have changed in the world, but not the way that kids think.”

A video tribute accompanied the lecture. Feiffer described Juster’s “intense, jovial presence”—a presence still felt. He also, in a nice aside, said, “He loved food. And this was before food was in.” Juster was shown walking with his wife and laughing constantly. He discussed being a synesthete—a biographical detail that sends one back to the Chroma chapter, with the conductor summoning the sunset.

I’ll leave you with the close of Emily Maxwell’s 1961 New Yorker review (a review that, according to Juster, saved his book from the remainder bins):

One is also reminded of Alice in Wonderland—not to mention the fantasies of James Thurber—as one reads The Phantom Tollbooth, but the book remains triumphantly itself, lucid, humorous, full of warmth and real invention. Mr. Juster is thirty-two years old and is a practicing architect. According to the jacket, he is preparing a book on urban aesthetics, on a grant from the Ford Foundation. I have great hopes for any city he has a say about.