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Celebrating 50 years of 'The Phantom Tollbooth'

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They met through garbage. Jules Feiffer, living in the second story of a Brooklyn apartment building, was throwing out his trash. Norton Juster, an architect living in the basement apartment, heard the noise and came out to see whether there was anything being thrown away he might want. It was the late 1950s; the two hit it off, and soon enough Feiffer provided the illustrations for the book Juster had written, "The Phantom Tollbooth." It was published 50 years ago, in 1961.

Juster and Feiffer entertained a filled-to-the-gills auditorium at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday. The collaborators, each of whom is 82, bantered and joked with each other with the familiarity of people who've been friends for decades. Describing their process on "The Phantom Tollbooth," Juster said, "It worked very well," turning to Feiffer to add, "I taught you a lot."

"Everything I don't know," Feiffer replied, not missing a beat.

Feiffer, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, was then in his early years at the Village Voice. At the time he did many cartoons for the alternative weekly, but he often focused on politics. Moderator Leonard Marcus, who has authored a forthcoming annotated edition of "The Phantom Tollbooth," asked Feiffer about deciding to illustrate a children's book. "You never told me it was a children's book," he said, turning to Juster. "You told me it was a political satire on the Cold War."

That too. Juster was an architect who'd written a book that didn't fit the mold of children's books at the time -- its puns were too sophisticated, the vocabulary was too difficult, and there was that whiff of political metaphor. What's more, Juster was told "fantasy was bad for children because it disorients them," he said.

What inspired Juster, an architect, to write a book so unsuited to his times? Marx Brothers movies, he explained, and his father, who often punned and played with words, saying things like, "You used to be behind before, but now you're first at last," Juster remembered. Of course, the book might have been out of step with what some publishers thought children wanted, but it was perfectly in tune -- it became an instant classic that has been embraced by generations of children.

"The Phantom Tollbooth" is about a boy named Milo who is transported to a land rife with puns and with metaphors made real. Sisters Rhyme and Reason are banished, the kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis are at war, and with watchdog Tock's help, Milo sets about making things right.

Juster explained he always saw things a little differently, including "the ridiculous in math." While he didn't have the word to describe it at the time, he has the condition synesthesia -- he had to use colors to do math, even through college. "It struck me I could play some games with that, with my own inadequacy," he said.

"Cartoonists don't have normal heads; they just don't think the way other people do," Feiffer added. "You turn the negative into something positive, and if you get lucky, you turn it into art."

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Leonard Marcus, from left, Jules Feiffer and Norton Juster at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times

 
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