Norton Juster, author of bestselling children’s books The Phantom Tollbooth and The Dot and the Line, has died aged 91. His death was confirmed by his publisher Penguin Random House on Tuesday, but no cause was revealed.
Children’s author and illustrator Mo Willems announced Juster’s death on Twitter on Tuesday. “My lunch partner, Norton Juster, ran out of stories and passed peacefully last night. Best known for THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH + THE DOT & THE LINE, Norton’s greatest work was himself: a tapestry of delightful tales. Miss him,” he wrote, quoting the end of The Dot and the Line: “To the vector goes the spoils.” Author Philip Pullman joined the tributes, calling Juster “a wonderfully inventive writer and a truly lovely man.”
The author of 12 books, Juster was born to two Jewish migrants in New York in 1929. After studying architecture, he enrolled in the US Navy where, while bored, he would write his first children’s story, an unpublished satirical fairytale, for which he was reprimanded by his commanding officer.
After three years in the navy, Juster was discharged and began living with the cartoonist Jules Feiffer in 1960. The two housemates would work together on The Phantom Tollbooth, with Juster writing and Feiffer illustrating. Following a bored boy named Milo who drives through a magic tollbooth into the troubled Kingdom of Wisdom and discovers his love of learning, the 1961 novel was filled with puns and wordplay. Juster drew inspiration from a wide range of his childhood favourites, including The Wind in the Willows and the Marx Brothers.
After a slow start to sales – Juster described his mother Minnie “terrorising” bookshop owners to put the novel on display – The Phantom Tollbooth became a bestseller after several glowing reviews. Critics compared it to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; New Yorker critic Emily Maxwell cited Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, writing: “As Pilgrim’s Progress is concerned with the awakening of the sluggardly spirit, The Phantom Tollbooth is concerned with the awakening of the lazy mind.” British author Diana Wynne Jones later spoke of reading her copy so often it fell apart: “It didn’t occur to us that it might be about something. It struck us as a little like The Wizard of Oz, only better.”
Juster’s debut became a bestseller around the world, selling millions of copies and adapted into an opera, film and theatre production. In 1963 he followed it up by writing and illustrating The Dot and the Line, a mathematical romance between a red dot and a blue line. The book became a staple in US classrooms and was adapted into an animation that won the 1965 Academy award for animated short film.
Despite his success as a children’s author, Juster would continue to work in architecture for three more decades, co-founding an architectural firm and working as a professor of architecture at Hampshire College until his retirement in 1992. He continued to write children’s books, with his 2005 book The Hello, Goodbye Window winning the Caldecott Medal for the illustrator Chris Raschka.
In 2011, he reflected on the consistent success of the Phantom Tollbooth, telling NPR: “Today’s world of texting and tweeting is quite a different place, but children are still the same as they’ve always been. They still get bored and confused, and still struggle to figure out the important questions of life. Well, one thing has changed: as many states eliminate tolls on highways, some children may never encounter a real tollbooth. Luckily there are other routes to the Lands Beyond. And it is possible to seek them, and fun to try.”