'Tollbooth' Author Norton Juster Plays Not My Job

Jul 20, 2012
Originally published on July 23, 2012 12:45 pm

Fifty years ago, a young architect named Norton Juster decided to procrastinate by writing a children's book; his roommate, a young cartoonist named Jules Feiffer, did all the illustrations. The result was The Phantom Tollbooth, which has since become a beloved children's classic.

Since Juster knows enough about The Phantom Tollbooth already, we've invited him to answer three questions about The Phantom Menace.

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And now, a game where we reward someone for being special by asking them about something ordinary. Fifty years ago, a young architect decided to procrastinate by writing a children's book. He had his roommate, a young cartoonist named Jules Feiffer, do the pictures.

"The Phantom Tollbooth" has been hailed as a classic of children's literature. It has just been released in a commemorative 50th Anniversary Edition and an annotated edition. And I am pleased to have its author join us now. Norton Juster, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!

NORTON JUSTER: Thank you, thank you.


SAGAL: Now, as anybody who knows anything about me knows, this is my favorite book ever, and I could probably recite it from memory. But for those who are fortunate in that they haven't encountered it yet, so therefore can for the first time, could you describe the book?

JUSTER: Well, it's a book about a little boy, about 10 years old, who hates school, doesn't really understand why he has to learn anything and doesn't believe anything adults tell him and doesn't understand anything about them and they don't understand anything about him.

SAGAL: This is true...

JUSTER: In short, it was me.

SAGAL: It's also me, but it's me now. That's the scary part.


SAGAL: But go on.

JUSTER: He comes home from school one day, finds someone has left a big package, which is a toll booth, assembles it, goes through the toll booth and ends up in a kind of crazy land where all rhyme and reason has been banished. And he has a series of adventures with a lot of word play, a lot of crazy things happening and a lot of fun.

SAGAL: It just occurred to me, you were living in New York. You wrote a book about traveling through a toll booth that leads you to a wild, strange place filled with crazy people, where there's no rhyme or reason. It's a book about going to Jersey, isn't it?


JUSTER: It's a book about passing through Jersey.

SAGAL: I guess so.


SAGAL: And you had your friend, your actual roommate in Brooklyn was Jules Feiffer?

JUSTER: Yes, we met when I was in the Navy. I had a stationing at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and they said I could live off-base. And I moved into a disreputable basement room and he was living on the second floor. And he would look over stuff I was writing, and I'd get discouraged, and he would be a great help to me by always telling me that writing a book was a terrific way to meet girls.


SAGAL: How'd that work out?

JUSTER: Well, it didn't work out so well, because I never met anybody over 11.

SAGAL: Yeah.


SAGAL: What was the reaction to the book when it came out?

JUSTER: It was kind of unanimous, it was not a children's book. The vocabulary was too difficult for kids. The situations and the things I talked about were way out of their understanding. The word play and the punning, they would never get. And to top it off, they told me that fantasy was bad for children because it disoriented them.


SAGAL: Speaking as a child who liked fantasy that was the point.

JUSTER: Right.

SAGAL: And so they told you it wasn't going to work. And then the book came out and what happened?

JUSTER: Well, it began to get some very nice reviews. You know, for me, I think the only reason the book came out is because I did absolutely everything wrong.

SAGAL: How so?

JUSTER: A friend took it to an editor at Random House, who it turned out was not a children's book editor, which I think is probably the only reason it got published. And I had never written any kind of book, no less a children's book, and Jules had never illustrated a children's book. And everything we did step by step was exactly wrong and it all seemed to work out perfectly.


JUSTER: I think there's a lesson there but I don't want to know what it is.

SAGAL: Exactly.


SAGAL: I should say, when you talk about word play, the book is filled with these elaborate sort of tricks and games and jokes. For example...

JUSTER: Oh yeah.

SAGAL: ...there's the cart that moves when nobody says anything because it goes without saying.

JUSTER: Right, exactly.


SAGAL: It goes to the banquet where everybody has to eat their words.


SAGAL: There's the Island of Conclusions which you can only get to by jumping to.

JUSTER: Jump to, of course.

SAGAL: Jump to Conclusions.


SAGAL: It's actually interesting because he comes back from this amazing adventure, at the end of the book, and then he wants to go back and the phantom tollbooth is gone.

JUSTER: Right.

SAGAL: And he starts to say to myself, oh my gosh, I want to go back and I won't be able to go back. But then he says, but you know what, this world, the real world is so much more interesting, I don't think I'd have time to go back to the magical wonderful place where I had these adventures because it's so much more interesting here. And I...

JUSTER: That was my way of getting out of it, of course.

SAGAL: Yeah.


SAGAL: I swear to you, if you can think of a 10-year-old little Jewish boy in New Jersey holding up his book and going "you're crazy." Find the toll booth.


SAGAL: So now that I've got you, I'm like "what was he thinking, Mr. Juster? It's so much better there."

JUSTER: Right. Well the one thing you have to understand, which I think we don't, even to this day, is that we constantly underestimate what kids will understand or what they can deal with. And I think that's what I was trying to get at in the book.

That they understand a lot more and the really fortunate ones carry that special understanding into their adulthood. And if you lose that, I think you lose something very important.

SAGAL: I guess that's true, and I guess I lost it.


SAGAL: Now, "The Phantom Tollbooth" was made into a move back in 1970. I mean, did you see it? What'd you think of it?

JUSTER: Well, I avoided it for several years because I didn't know what it was going to be like. I live in Amherst, Massachusetts where the University of Massachusetts is, and one day there was a little notice in the paper that the film club was putting on a double feature. And the first was a horror film called "Buckets of Blood."


JUSTER: And the second was "The Phantom Tollbooth."


SAGAL: Sure, why not?

JUSTER: Well, I got all the way through "Buckets of Blood," but I only lasted about 20 minutes...

SAGAL: Really?

JUSTER: ...in "The Phantom Tollbooth." Right.

SAGAL: Why? What was wrong?

JUSTER: Well, it was just very different than the way I had visualized it. And I think every author probably hates the films that are made of his work.

SAGAL: So it's crazy, it's the 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Phantom Tollbooth." It doesn't seem possible.

BRIAN BABYLON: Fifty years?

SAGAL: Fifty years. Well it came out...

JUSTER: I wrote it when I was four.


SAGAL: And what a precocious young man you were.


SAGAL: All right, Norton Juster, what a pleasure to have you here. We have invited you here to play a game we're calling?

CARL KASELL: Let's call it The Phantom Something. Kids love that.

JUSTER: I'll take that, yes.

SAGAL: So you wrote "The Phantom Tollbooth," which is universally loved. George Lucas made "The Phantom Menace," which is universally hated but made a boatload of money. Go figure.


SAGAL: We're going to ask you three questions about "The Phantom Menace." Get two questions right, you'll win our prize.



SAGAL: You'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their home answering machine. Carl, who is author Norton Juster playing for?

KASELL: He is playing for Eileen Fordonski of White Salmon, Washington

JUSTER: Boy, I hope I don't fail her.

SAGAL: It's all right. It's an adventure. Have you ever seen "The Phantom Menace," by the way?


SAGAL: Oh great.


SAGAL: Now, George Lucas, the director of course, was known for his high tech approach to filmmaking. For example, the communicating device that Liam Neeson's character uses in the film is actually what? Is it A: An Apple iPhone, almost a decade before it was officially invented? B: A painted over empty soda can? Or C: A modified Sensor Excel Razor for Women?

JUSTER: Let's see which one it will be. I think it was the iPhone.

SAGAL: The iPhone? An Apple iPhone ten years before it was invented?


SAGAL: Why not?


SAGAL: Actually, no it was the razor; it was the Sensor Excel Razor for women.

JUSTER: I knew that all along.


SAGAL: You can tell it - the give, the tell is when Liam Neeson uses it at one key point to shave his legs.


SAGAL: All right, next question: the lead of the film was played by a young boy named Jake Lloyd. He was 10 when the movie was released. The movie changed his life, of course. What was the next stage of his career?

A: He recreated the role in a musical version of "The Phantom Menace" that played for eight years in Branson, Missouri.


SAGAL: B: He quit acting entirely because he got teased so much by kids who made light saber noises when he walked by? Or C: He changed his name to Zac Ephron, and has done pretty well for himself?


JUSTER: I think I'm going to lose again here, I think it was probably the first one.

SAGAL: That he went to Branson, Missouri.


SAGAL: To perform in a musical version of "The Phantom Menace."

JUSTER: It sounds like something I would do.


SAGAL: So you're sure about that one, are you?

JUSTER: I'm not sure about anything.


JUSTER: I'll change it then.

SAGAL: All right.


SAGAL: I just want you to remember how much I love that book. That's basically what I'm saying.

PAULA POUNDSTONE: You've rallied the support of the crowd, Norton.

JUSTER: Well I'll take the second one then.

SAGAL: You're going to take that he got teased?


SAGAL: You're right.



SAGAL: Lloyd told a British tabloid that he got so tired of the teasing that he quit acting and threw out all his Star Wars toys. The last question; the movie was notorious for the character of Jar Jar Binks, a computer generated alien that everyone hated.

Critic Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal called the character what? A: "A "Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen?" B: "The cinematic equivalent of having dull nails pounded into your forehead?" Or C: "The most tragic thing to happen in a movie theater since Shoah?"

JUSTER: I'll take number three.


SAGAL: I should have known you'd go right for the holocaust humor. I should have, knowing your work as you do, I should have anticipated that would be your. Are you sure you don't want to pick again maybe?

JUSTER: OK, I pick number one.

POUNDSTONE: There you go.


SAGAL: Very good. You're right, yes.


JUSTER: Wait a minute, have you got a number four?

SAGAL: No, no, no, it's too late. You've already...


SAGAL: You can't give a man a gift some days. Carl, how did Norton Juster do on our quiz?

KASELL: Norton had two correct answers, so he wins...

POUNDSTONE: All right.


KASELL: He wins for Eileen Fordonski.

SAGAL: It never occurred to me, for all those years I was reading and enjoying your book that some day I would end up desperately helping you cheat.


SAGAL: Norton Juster is the author of "The Phantom Tollbooth," the classic of children's literature, now out in a 50th Anniversary edition. Norton Juster, thank you so much for joining us.

JUSTER: Oh, thank you, I appreciate it.

SAGAL: Bye-bye.


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