Books

Six Things All Writers Can Learn From The Phantom Tollbooth

Norton Juster, who died this week at 91, was an architect by trade—and his beautifully structured novels show it.

A photo of a bald man with a white beard on the left side, and a drawing of a man wearing a doctor's outfit on the right, extending flowers to the man on the left.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images and MGM.

I like to think of myself as indifferent to celebrity; nevertheless, awe strikes now and then. Once, it hit when I got to interview Norton Juster, the author of The Phantom Tollbooth, who died Monday at the age of 91. He was short and round and jolly and clever and kind—exactly the person my child self, for whom Phantom was an adored book, would have wanted him to be. My adult self, who knew all too well how seldom meetings with the authors of beloved books live up to expectations, was dazzled.

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Although Juster wrote several books—including 1963’s The Dot and the Line, the story of a love triangle involving a line, a dot, and a squiggle, made into an Oscar-winning animated short by Chuck Jones—he was an architect by trade. This makes the literary accomplishment of The Phantom Tollbooth even more impressive. Every time I return to the book, I marvel at how beautifully crafted is, and not just for a kids’ book. There’s plenty that all kinds of writers can learn from Juster’s masterpiece, such as:

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Procrastination isn’t always your enemy. Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth when he was supposed to be writing a book about cities for children, a project for which he had received a grant. As a rule, the thing that you write for fun will always be better than whatever you think is more important, serious, or expected of you. “The secret, at least in my life,” Juster told me when we spoke, “is that if you want to do something you have to do something else to get away from that and that’s the thing that turns out to be worthwhile.”

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Not all geniuses are lone. Juster was living in Brooklyn Heights when he wrote The Phantom Tollbooth in 1960, and his downstairs neighbor was the cartoonist, Jules Feiffer, soon to become a household name. Feiffer got interested in the novel-in-progress and began to supply Juster with illustrations. This further inspired Juster to come up with characters and situations that Feiffer would find impossible to depict visually, such as the Triple Demons of Compromise—”one tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third exactly like the other two.”

Don’t be afraid of the big themes, but don’t lean too hard on them, either. In The Phantom Tollbooth, the hero, Milo, learns that the Kingdom of Wisdom has gone to wrack and ruin due to a long-standing feud between King Azaz of Dictionopolis and his brother, the Mathemagician, over whether letters are more important than numbers, or vice versa. Students of intellectual history will recognize this as the subject of a famous lecture, “The Two Cultures,” delivered by the British chemist C.P. Snow in 1959, about the widening divide between the humanities and the sciences. Juster told me that Snow’s ideas had indeed influenced The Phantom Tollbooth. “I didn’t lay it out as a thesis or anything” he said, “but it was fun having it in there. And it doesn’t get in the way of the story.”

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No literary form or genre ever really dies. I’d need two hands to count the number of times I’ve heard someone complain that a children’s book (often The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) is bad because it’s too “allegorical,” only to sputter when asked if they also despise The Phantom Tollbooth. Juster’s novel is much closer to a classic allegory (a misunderstood and unjustly maligned form) than most books for young readers, who have never found it lifeless or tendentious. The right writer can revive any form.

Procrastination is sometimes your enemy. Milo and his sidekicks, Tock the Watchdog and the Humbug, confront many demons in their quest to liberate the princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air. As a child, I found the Terrible Trivium, an exquisitely tailored dandy without a face, to be one of the creepiest characters I’d ever encountered, but it was only as an adult that I appreciated how terrifying he truly is. In no time, the Trivium has diverted the heroes from their quest by charmingly requesting their help with “a few small jobs,” one of which is moving a pile of sand from one spot to another with a pair of tweezers. Juster told me that the Trivium was inspired by his own tendency to sit down at his desk and “realize that I have to straighten out the paper clips, or there’s something happening out the window, or a shopping list that has to be compiled.”

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Good writing is as much about what you don’t say as what you do. The Phantom Tollbooth is full of examples of how a story can be made wilder or deeper by leaving things out. Take the tollbooth itself, which is delivered to the bored Milo’s apartment with a note stating only, “FOR MILO, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME.” Do we need to know who sent it? We do not. The fact that the tollbooth arrives when needed and departs after it has served its purpose is much more satisfying than, say, a backstory about it being a gift from Milo’s wise but eccentric aunt.

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The same goes for description. At the Fortress of the Soundkeeper, Milo is given an envelope that the Soundkeeper says contains “the exact tune George Washington whistled when he crossed the Delaware on that icy night in 1777.” When Milo opens the envelope to peer inside, “sure enough, that’s exactly what was in it.” By refraining from putting what Milo sees into words, Juster creates the space for the reader’s imagination to flourish, and at the same time, only a story told with words could get away with such a saucy move.

But don’t take my word for it. Revisit (or discover) The Phantom Tollbooth for yourself. (There’s also an excellent audiobook version, narrated by Rainn Wilson, but then you’d miss Feiffer’s witty illustrations.) Writing it wasn’t Norton Juster’s real job, but he could not have left behind a richer gift before embarking on his own journey to the Lands Beyond.

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