The SCBWI is saddened by the news that one of the greats of children’s literature, the renowned and beloved author, Norton Juster, has died at 91.
His first book, The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by his good friend Jules Feiffer, has sold millions of copies and remains a classic in classrooms and homes around the world. The Phantom Tollbooth tells the story of a young boy, Milo, who like the author himself as a child, felt the world was a lonely, boring place. In the book, Milo discovers a mysterious and magical tollbooth and when he drives his toy car through it he embarks on an unexpected adventure– one that encourages his curiosity and inspires a love of learning new things.
Over the years, critics have rightly compared the book to other classics such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.
Among his other books were The Dot and The Line, a mathematical romance between a red dot and a blue line. In 1965 it was animated and won the Academy Award for short animation. And later, he authored The Hello, Goodbye Window which won the 2005 Caldecott Award for the illustrator Chris Raschka.
One of his lifelong friends, Richard Michelson, of the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts, says of Norton, “He was witty, playful and kind. We are lucky to have his words in our world.”
On occasion, Juster would be faulted for his use of big or unfamiliar words in his children’s books, but he thought that challenging young readers was part of the point.
“To kids,” he once said, “there are no difficult words, there are just words they have never come across before.”
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.”
The SCBWI joins the world in mourning his loss. As a friend to the organization and a speaker at our conferences, he was full of humor, eloquence, and generosity. His playful joy lit up every room he entered. As with those rare words of his, we are fortunate to have encountered such a unique talent in our time.