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‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ author Norton Juster dead at 91

His other children’s books included ‘The Dot and the Line’ and ‘Stark Naked’ and collaborations with Jules Feiffer on ‘The Odious Ogre’ and Eric Carle on ‘Otter Nonsense.’

Norton Juster.
Norton Juster.
Random House Children’s Books

Norton Juster, the bestselling children’s author best known for writing “The Phantom Tollbooth,” has died following complications from a stroke. He was 91.

Dominique Cimina of the publisher Random House Children’s Books said Mr. Juster died at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts.

His friend and fellow author Mo Willems tweeted that Mr. Juster “ran out of stories” and died “peacefully.”

“Norton’s greatest work was himself: a tapestry of delightful tales,” Willems wrote.

His first and best-known work, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” published in 1961, was about a bored 10-year-old boy named Milo who comes home to find a magical toy tollbooth in his room. It followed his adventures through the Kingdom of Wisdom, a land extending from The Foothills of Confusion to The Valley of Sound, populated by the imperiled princesses Rhyme and Reason and the fearsome Gorgons of Hate and Malice.

The book’s drawings were provided by his roommate at the time, artist Jules Feiffer, who later collaborated with him on “The Odious Ogre,” published in 2010.

Eric Carle of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” fame illustrated Mr. Juster’s “Otter Nonsense,” which came out in 1982.

Born in Brooklyn in 1929, Mr. Juster studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and spent a year in Liverpool, England, on a Fulbright Scholarship, doing graduate work in urban planning.

After three years in the Navy, from 1954 to 1957, he began work as an architect in New York City, eventually opening his own firm. He later taught architecture and planning at Pratt Institute of New York and was a professor of design at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He retired from both to continue writing.

As Mr. Juster wrote in the introduction to a 1999 reissue of “The Phantom Tollbooth,” he got the idea for the book when he was in his late 20s, working at an architectural firm in New York.

He had received a grant for a book on urban planning and spent months researching it before a boy’s “startling” question — overheard in a restaurant — changed his narrative and changed his life: “What’s the biggest number there is?”

“I started to compose what I thought would be about a child’s confrontation with numbers and words and meanings and other strange concepts that are imposed on children,” he wrote. “I loved the opportunity to turns things upside down and inside out and indulge in all the bad jokes and puns and wordplay that my father had introduced me to when I was growing up.”

“The Phantom Tollbooth.”
“The Phantom Tollbooth.”
Random House Children’s Books

“When I had about 50 pages, a friend took it to Random House, and they liked it and offered me a contract to finish the book,” he said in a 2001 interview with Salon.com.

Maurice Sendak — the celebrated children’s author and an admirer of Mr. Juster — praised the book’s “excitement and sheer delight in glorious lunatic linguistic acrobatics.”

A 1970 movie adaptation starred Butch Patrick, famed for playing Eddie Munster, the son on the hit 1960s TV comedy “The Munsters.” “The Phantom Tollbooth” was later made into a musical.

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Phantom Tollbooth,” Adam Gopnick, writing in The New Yorker, called the book “the closest thing that American literature has to an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ of its own.”

Mr. Juster was the son and brother of architects. He never turned entirely from his family craft. He continued to write books while co-founding the architectural firm Juster Pope Associates in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, and his stories often combined his seemingly opposite gifts for structure and absurdity.

Mr. Juster’s “The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Mathematics” is a love triangle as only he could have imagined — between a straight and straight-laced line, a dotty dot and a swinging squiggle. Animator Chuck Jones — famous for, among many other cartoons, “Bugs Bunny” — adapted it into an Oscar-winning short film.

In his book “Stark Naked,” an undressed protagonist finds himself wandering the town of Emotional Heights, encountering such characters as the intellectual Noel Lott and school principal Martin Nett.

Mr. Juster’s more recent stories included “The Hello, Goodbye Window,” for which illustrator Chris Raschka received a Caldecott Medal, and the sequel “Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie.”

Mr. Juster’s wife of 54 years, Jeanne, died in 2018. He is survived by his daughter Emily and granddaughter Tori. His publisher said a “celebration of Juster’s life will take place at a later date.”

One project he never got around to was that book on urban planning.

“The funny thing is that many of the things I was thinking about for that book did find their way into ‘The Phantom Tollbooth,’ ” he wrote in 1999. “Maybe someday I’ll get back to it when I’m trying to avoid doing something else.”

Contributing: USA Today