Fifty years ago, Norton Juster changed children’s literature when a bored Milo entered the Lands Beyond in The Phantom Tollbooth. In his essay for The New Yorker, Broken Kingdom, Adam Gopnik recalls his own adventure in the strange land of numbers and words, and interviews Juster to reveal the unlikely inspiration behind the classic – a combination of a bored architect, a Ford Foundation grant, Juster’s synesthesia (associating numbers with colors), and listening to the radio. Although marketed as a children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth may have had more significance to adults, especially, as Gopnik suggests, those of us who opted for a liberal arts education as opposed to learning something that would get us a job. As a young mother, I had a dog-eared copy in my car’s glove compartment, and often opened randomly to a chapter while sitting in the car, to cure my own boredom while waiting through my carpool/pickup duties for a child’s ballet or gymnastics class to finish. Each time I reread the book, I find a new analogy and a new laugh. Milo’s pursuit of Rhyme and Reason, through the muddle of the Island of Conclusions and the Sea of Knowledge are timeless.
Juster has had a few books since The Phantom Tollbooth – one of my favorites The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics – the story of the eternal triangle with the sensible yet rigid straight line in love with the dot, who only has eyes for the carefree squiggle. The line proudly performs his role as law enforcement agent (the line down the middle of the road), a force in world affairs (the equator), and more. Eventually, the dot sees his worth and true love prevails. The metaphors are everywhere.
In his recently published picture book, Neville, Juster once again teases adults while offering unusual advice to children on how to make friends. Being new to the neighborhood, a little boy is unhappy to have no friends. His mother encourages him to take a walk –
“You might even meet someone.”
Seeing no one around, the boy stops and shouts out a name – Neville. Soon he has a chorus of little friends anxious to help him find Neville – everyone is shouting the name. As the search and shouting continue, they are all convinced that Neville is a likeable new friend they want to meet. The ending is really not a surprise, but a satisfying confirmation that it’s always possible to make new friends – sometimes just by walking around the block and shouting out your own name.
A short book, with clever illustrations by G. Brian Karas, Neville is a book to read aloud and have children shout along with the story.
Norton spins his tales with that rare perspective that provides adults with an insider chuckle, while giving children a good story. Read them all to yourself and then aloud to your favorite listener.