Happy 50th to ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’

Mike Krumboltz
October 24, 2011

The classic children's book "The Phantom Tollbooth" is 50 years old.

Written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, the book came out on October 25, 1961. Though times have certainly changed over the title's half-century run, its devoted following among both youngsters and grown-ups has kept it a perennial classic.

"The Phantom Tolbooth" famously recountss the story of a bored boy who finds a tollbooth in his bedroom and travels to a fantastic new world in his swanky car where he meets a dog named Tock, who has a clock for a body. But the real-life saga behind "The Phantom Tollbooth" is nearly as fascinating as the novel itself.

Indeed, the book almost never happened.

Many features of "The Phantom Tollboth" made the book ahead of its time--chief among them the book's distinctive vocabulary. The writers of most kids' books used easy-to-understand words--but author Norton Juster chose the opposite approach, using weird words like like "Dictionopolis" and "Mathmagician" and a wild plot to move his story forward.

That didn't go over too well with publishers, who told Juster that kids not only wouldn't understand the language; they'd also be confused by the book's fantasy elements. Fortunately for readers, Juster and Feiffer didn't listen to the criticism. And of course, the book's fanatical young following would get the humor just fine.

The novel has gone on to sell millions of copies with scores of foreign-language translations. But it exists, in large part, thanks to a garbage can--that, indeed, is where Juster and Fieffer met. In a 2009 interview with Publishers Weekly, the pair explained that they lived in apartments in the same Brooklyn building in the 1950s. Juster was finishing out his tour of duty as a civil engineer in the Navy. He bumped into Feiffer while taking out the trash. When the building underwent renovations, the two moved into a duplex down the street.

Feiffer, who lived in the downstairs apartment, would hear Juster pacing above him. Feiffer went up to investigate, read what his neighbor was writing, and then started drawing sketches to go along with the text. Juster eventually caught the kind of break that all fledgling writers dream of, via a grant from the Ford Foundation. And like all good writers, he procrastinated and procrastinated--until, according to a recent article from The New Yorker, he found "the guilt for not doing it was overwhelming."

Juster confessed in The New Yorker that he didn't think the book would sell. But a favorable review from that same magazine ("full of warmth and real invention," the magazine wrote in its 1961 notice) helped propel the title up the charts. And there it has stayed, for 50 years and counting.