11 Whimsical Facts About The Phantom Tollbooth

istock (blank book)
istock (blank book)

Norton Juster’s 1961 tale of a bored boy who travels to a magical land is more than it seems—as its plot enchants, The Phantom Tollbooth also manages to illustrate the joys of learning. The story behind the book's creation is just as fascinating, so we’ve compiled some fun facts for your next journey through the Kingdom of Wisdom.

1. The Phantom Tollbooth is a product of Juster’s procrastination.

After serving three years in the Navy, Juster returned to his hometown of Brooklyn to work as an architect. He received a $5,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to write a children’s book about cities, but overwhelmed by the amount of research it required, decided to take a vacation. Upon returning, Juster’s guilt over his lack of progress on the city book led him to start writing snippets of stories about a little boy named Milo—who happened to be quite similar to a young Juster. As Juster told NPR, “In order to stop thinking about cities, I had to start thinking about something else.”

2. Juster’s childhood synesthesia shaped the book.

Synesthesia is the condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another. It causes the afflicted to inexplicably associate a sound with a specific color, or perhaps a word with a color—the condition manifests differently in each synesthete.

Juster’s synesthesia caused him to associate numbers with colors, and similarly, words and images. Although he eventually grew out of it, the visual blurring of senses is evident in his writing. Juster once noted, “When I start to write I have to create visually, no matter how abstract, no matter how undefined. … It’s not only that I would have been a different writer had I not had that very developed visual sense, I don’t think I would have been a writer at all.”

3. Despite the similarities, Juster wasn't inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between the Kingdom of Wisdom and fantastical worlds like Narnia, the Emerald City, or Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s protagonist Alice is, like Milo, a bored child frustrated with reality; later, they both discover new worlds where “things aren’t always what they seem.” However, Juster’s inspiration came from a different source. The Phantom Tollbooth was heavily influenced by Juster’s father’s love of puns and wordplay, and further shaped by a childhood spent listening to the radio and imagining what could be.

4. A “boy who asked too many questions” inspired Milo.

While struggling with his book on cities, Juster had an interesting encounter with a young boy who asked him, “What is the biggest number there is?” The always-clever Juster replied, “Tell me what you think is the biggest number there is,” and then repeatedly told the boy to add one to that number, leading to a discussion about infinity. Thus, the “boy who asked too many questions” was born.

5. Milo’s watchdog had radio roots.

The character Tock was based on Jim Fairfield from Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, a popular radio show during Juster’s childhood. Tock, the “watchdog,” befriends Milo early in the book and accompanies him on his adventures. Jack Armstrong’s “Uncle Jim” was not a canine, but he did share Tock’s wisdom, courage, and adventurous spirit.

6. The iconic illustrations are the product of a lucky coincidence.

Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist who lived in the same apartment building as Juster, would often hear the author pacing in his apartment as he was working on Tollbooth. Curious, Feiffer asked to see some of Juster’s manuscripts, and soon found himself illustrating scenes from the book. Feiffer sketched his original drawings on flimsy pieces of tracing paper, most of which have now been lost or damaged. Feiffer later remarked, “Had Norton told me he was writing a classic, I would have done the drawings on nicer paper.”

7. Juster and Feiffer fell into a (mostly) playful power struggle.

Juster did most of the cooking for the pair and later joked that if Feiffer wanted to eat, he had to draw. The two got into it constantly: Juster frequently described scenes that were impossible to draw, and Feiffer responded by drawing things the way he wanted. Feiffer, for example, wasn’t good at drawing horses, so he drew the armies of wisdom riding in on cats instead. Despite their creative differences, the two remain good friends today.

8. It was supposed to be a flop …

As Juster told The New Yorker in 2011, the initial sales projections for his collaboration with Feiffer weren’t great. “Everyone said this is not a children’s book, the vocabulary is much too difficult, the wordplay and the punning they will never understand, and anyway fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them.”

9. But The New Yorker saved the day.

A glowing review from The New Yorker critic Emily Maxwell paved the way for the book's success. Maxwell adored it, comparing its themes to John Bunyan’s 17th century classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. She wrote, “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.”

10. Juster spent most of his career as an architect, not an author.

Although The Phantom Tollbooth became a classic, Juster wrote only a few more books (the most famous of which is The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics). Instead, he spent most of his working life as an architect. Juster served as a professor of architecture and environmental design at Hampshire College for more than 20 years and even co-founded a small architectural firm in 1970.

11. Juster wanted to demonstrate that learning is a “world we enter.”

In a 2011 installment of NPR’s All Things Considered, Juster shared his motivation for writing the book:

The prevailing wisdom of the time held that learning should be more accessible and less discouraging. The aim was that no child would ever have to confront anything that he or she didn't already know. 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.

8 Tips For Overcoming 'Reader's Block'

iStock.com/deyangeorgiev
iStock.com/deyangeorgiev

We’ve all been there. Your eyes glaze over, and you can’t get past the first paragraph on the page. Or perhaps you can’t will yourself to pick up a book in the first place. “Reader’s block” is a well-documented problem, and even avid readers occasionally suffer from it. The good news is that it’s not incurable, but it might require a little creativity and effort on your part. Read on to hear tips from longtime readers who have been through it—and managed to come out on the other side of a good book.

1. START EASY.

If your reading skills are a little rusty, it’s probably best not to start with War and Peace—or any of the classics, for that matter. Sometimes people fall into the trap of being overly ambitious and choosing one of the literary “greats” without stopping to question whether they actually want to read it. “This is the problem with readers: we aim too high,” Stuart Jeffries wrote in The Guardian. “Ultimately, reader's block is caused by the great is-ought dilemma. You know you should, but you probably won't.” Instead of setting yourself up for failure, start off with something short and easy to digest. Once you get back into the swing of things, you can graduate to more challenging books.

2. TRY A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES ...

Compared to a 300-page novel, short stories won’t seem like such an insurmountable task. Ginni Chen, Barnes and Noble’s “Literary Lady,” suggests trying a collection of stories written by different authors. That way, you’ll have the chance to figure out which styles and subjects you enjoy most. In an advice column addressed to someone with reader’s block, Chen recommended the Best American Short Stories and the Best American Nonrequired Reading collection. And if you want to start really small, there’s an app called Serial Box that will send you 150-character stories as push notifications.

3. … OR A DIFFERENT GENRE.

Sometimes, it helps to change up your routine and read something outside of your comfort zone or usual go-to. It worked for Bustle writer Charlotte Ahlin, who wrote, “I once read about four Vonneguts in a row and then spent a week feeling crushing despair over the human condition. Your mind needs a varied diet of books to stay sharp.” In a blog for the Iredell County Public Library in Statesville, North Carolina, book lover Michele Coleman offered similar testimony. “For me during my last slump or block, I found browsing the non-fiction eased my mind,” she wrote. Do you enjoy mystery? She suggests switching it up and reading a humorous book. Is romance your thing? Give historical fiction a shot instead.

4. READ PAGE 69 BEFORE COMMITTING TO A BOOK.

This unusual tip comes from John Sutherland, an English professor and the author of How to Read a Novel. As Jeffries of The Guardian puts it, “Once you have read page 69, you will have an idea of whether the book is up your street. (Why he didn't say page 56 is anybody's guess.)” If that snippet doesn’t appeal to you, put it back on the shelf. Otherwise you might get stuck reading something that isn’t suited to your tastes, which can make your reader’s block even worse.

5. DON’T FEEL OBLIGATED TO FINISH A BOOK IF YOU’RE NOT ENJOYING IT.

Reading is supposed to be enjoyable—not a chore. If you find yourself filled with dread any time you pick up the book you’re currently reading, you may want to rethink your choice of material. If you feel guilty about abandoning a book, just use this quote from philosopher Francis Bacon as an excuse: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” Interestingly, Goodreads compiles a list of the most popular abandoned books based on its user data, so you’ll be in good company if Infinite Jest goes infinitely unfinished.

6. LISTEN TO AN AUDIOBOOK.

Many traditionalists are of the opinion that audiobooks don’t really count as “reading,” but some researchers would disagree. One 2016 study found no difference in reading comprehension between those who had listened to an audiobook and those who had used an e-reader. It may seem counterintuitive, but audiobooks can also help beat reader's block, according to Jonathan Douglas, director of the UK's National Literacy Trust. This is because they can help reignite your passion for learning and consuming stories at a time when you’re having difficulty reading. Try listening to the audiobook while you drive to work, clean your house, or work out. You’ll feel extra accomplished for having done two productive things at once, and it may provide the momentum you need to get back into reading.

7. DISCONNECT FROM TECHNOLOGY.

In an article for Arré, writer Karan Mujoo said he’s been an avid reader since childhood. Yet he still occasionally struggles with reader’s block, and finds himself abandoning book after book when they fail to capture his interest. In his case, the availability of quick entertainment via streaming platforms like Netflix is simply too difficult to resist. “Unlike books, which require imagination and effort on the part of the reader, these shows serve you everything on a platter,” he writes. “Why then, should we expend our energies in reading, imagining, and creating a world when it has already been done for us?” Faced with a similar predicament, writer Hugh McGuire explained that his inability to focus on books was due to a “digital dopamine addiction” that stemmed from his consumption of television and online articles. With a few adjustments, though, he was able to get back into a regular reading habit. He suggests removing smartphones and computers from your bedroom, refraining from watching TV after dinner, and reading a book each night before bed. “I am reading books now more than I have in years,” he writes.

8. REREAD AN OLD FAVORITE.

When all else fails, “Literary Lady” Chen recommends paying a visit to an old friend. Your favorite books are memorable for a reason, and sometimes rereading a beloved book for the third time is all it takes to lift the reader’s block curse. You may also want to investigate options that are similar to your favorite authors and books. Book Browse is a good resource for finding “read-alikes” that might suit your tastes, and Literature Map will give you a visual overview of authors you may enjoy.

Dutton's New Young Adult Books Are the Size of a Smartphone—and They're Horizontal

Sometimes, the desire to read takes a backseat to how cumbersome it can be to carry a hardback book around all day, but a new line of pocket-sized volumes will ensure that’s never a problem. Dutton Books for Young Readers, a Penguin Random House imprint, has released a new line of books that are only a fraction of the size of the traditional hardback, as The New York Times reports.

The new design takes inspiration from the popular Dutch books known as dwarsliggers. In contrast to nearly every other book on the market, the text of these minute volumes is oriented horizontally, creating a flipbook effect. (The term comes from the Dutch words dwars—meaning crossways—and liggen—to lie.) The Dutton books are about the size of a smartphone, with extra-thin pages that make each volume only as thick as your finger. In other words, you'll only need one hand to read them.

A copy of the Penguin Mini version of 'Paper Towns' resting on two open copies of the book
Penguin Random House

The Penguin Minis are made by a Dutch printer, Royal Jongbloed, which is currently the only company in the world that makes books in this specific format. It uses ultra-thin paper sourced from just one Finnish mill.

The first books released in the new format are young adult novels by none other than Mental Floss friend John Green, host of our YouTube series Scatterbrained. You can buy the tiny versions of The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, and Looking for Alaska at major retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as at independent bookstores for $12 each. (There's also a boxed set of all four books on Amazon for $27.)

A boxed set of John Green novels released as Penguin Minis
Penguin Random House

Dutton is printing 500,000 copies for the first run, and if the compact novels prove popular over the holidays, there will be more volumes on their way in the future.

[h/t The New York Times]

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