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The Phantom Tollbooth Turns 50

As beloved children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth, turns 50 years old, author Norton Juster reflects on the book’s creation in a guest article for NPR. The idea for his debut book, which tells the story of a young, restless boy named Milo who discovers a mysterious toll booth and embarks on adventures in the Lands Beyond, came to Juster in a round about way.

“Like most good things that have happened in my life, The Phantom Tollbooth came about because I was trying to avoid doing something else. It was 1958, and after three years in the Navy I returned to New York City to work as an architect. I had also received a grant to do a book on cities for children. I started with great energy and enthusiasm until I found myself waist-deep in stacks of 3-by-5 note cards, exhausted and dispirited. This is not what I wanted to do.”

Juster began to write about a boy with a childhood very similar to his own to distract himself, and thus the story of The Phantom Tollbooth was born. Now, the book is considered a children’s literary classic, but the author remembers some sharply voiced criticism to the book when it was first published. “Many said that it was not a children’s book, the vocabulary was much too difficult, and the ideas were beyond kids. To top it off, they claimed fantasy was bad for children because it disorients them.”

“But my feeling is that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet — the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure,” concludes Juster.

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