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"The Phantom Tollbooth": Crafting a literary classic

From 2012: "Phantom Tollbooth" author Norton Juster
From 2012: "Phantom Tollbooth" author Norton Juster 05:34

(CBS News) Can a combination of illustrations and word play assure a long life to a children's book? Well, that depends on who's drawing the pictures, and who's writing the words. With Rita Braver now we'll examine the Fine Print:

Literary history was made 50 years ago at a Brooklyn Heights row house. It was there that two young housemates dreamed up the celebrated children's adventure, "The Phantom Tollbooth," written by Norton Juster, with illustrations by Jules Feiffer.

The story centers on a bored boy named Milo, "who didn't know what to do with himself - not just sometimes, but always ..."

When he was in school, he longed to be out, and when he was out, he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and going home, he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered.

A boy, in fact, a lot like Norton Juster ...

"He's more like me than I was, actually," Juster told Braver.

"Yeah, a bald kid with a beard, yeah," chimed in Feiffer.

Today, Feiffer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, as well as playwright and screenwriter. Juster is a successful architect, as well as children's book author.

But back to the story of Milo, the indifferent boy who is transformed when he discovers a magic tollbooth that's a gateway to all kinds of adventures . . . to kings and princesses and fantastic places, like the Foothills of Confusion and the Mountains of Ignorance, all visited with his trusty companion, Tock, the ultimate watch-dog.

First came the words, then the pictures.

"Norton would read me what he had written," recalled Feiffer, "and in order to avoid doing the work I was supposed to doing, I began sketching characters for the 'Phantom Tollbooth.' And as it evolved, it just seemed like a natural act, that if this book was going to be Illustrated, why not by me?"

Juster delighted in word play, such as Police Officer Short Shrift ("Exactly! What else would you call the police?").

Feiffer faithfully drew the cop and other characters, like the Humbug and the Mathemagician and a Spelling BEE who urges Milo not to be to A-L-A-R-M-E-D. But, as they explained at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Feiffer drew the line at putting the Armies of Wisdom on Horseback.

But, as they explained recently at the Brooklyn Book festival, Feiffer balked at drawing the Armies of Wisdom on Horseback: "I didn't know how to draw horses," he said.

"Right, and so he asked me if it would be all right if he mounted the army on cats!" Juster laughed. "And we had a real to-do about that. So finally, he very grudgingly drew an outline of one horse, and we just set it back several times."

The book was made into an animated film, with the courtiers of Dictionopolis, the Land of Words welcoming Milo: "We offer you the hospitality of our kingdom, nation, state, commonwealth, realm, empire, palatinate, principality..."

Juster, now 82 and Feiffer, 83, say that back in 1961 no one expected "The Phantom Tollbooth" to materialize into anything:

"The vocabulary's too difficult," Juster recalls the attitude. "The ideas were too complex ... Kids would not get any of the world play and punning ... and to top it all off, It's not really a children's book." Or how about: "Fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them."

But sitting in one of their old Brooklyn haunts, the Queen Italian Restaurant, they recall that the reviews were raves, starting with The New Yorker, which dubbed the book, "a newborn classic."

"My first thought, was, my goodness, if I had written that review myself, I couldn't have made it any better," Juster said. "I was absolutely staggered by it."

Today Juster gets a rock star's reception at places like the Field School in Washington, D.C., where every single student read the book.

"In the book are concerns and things that I think almost every child goes through - fears, uncertainties, apprehensions, misunderstandings," said Juster.

A 50th-anniversary edition was recently published, with appreciations by other writers . . . and generations of readers line up to get their sometimes-tattered books signed, and talk about what the book meant to them.

Which clearly delights these two old friends...

"This is why you do these things," Feiffer said. "You want to make a connection between yourself and some anonymous readers out there, who you will be important to, and who are important to you in consequence."

"So, what you're proudest of this book is really the fact that people can read into it what they want to?" asked Braver.

"Yes, and with my delight and blessing," Feiffer replied.

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