October 11, 2011

The Wisdom of Norton Juster

        Ten days ago I was delivering some art to the venue of a show, and I arrived before the woman I was to meet.  So I picked up the free copy of the Parents Paper magazine that was sitting out, and was delighted to discover therein an interview with Norton Juster, author of The Phantom Tollbooth.  It turns out this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Phantom Tollbooth, and a musical production of the story is also coming to town.  (There was a contest/drawing to receive tickets to the show and both P and T eagerly wrote up paragraphs to submit.  I'll report back if we end up winning some tickets… but don't anyone hold your breath.)
        The Phantom Tollbooth, as everyone knows, is its own species, not really like any other book.  But it does share with many of my favorite books certain characteristics, such as likeable, decent characters, a happy ending, a sense of fun and wonder, and narration and vocabulary that don't talk down to children.  I was really delighted to read about some of Juster's ideas behind the writing of the book.
        First of all, he said The Phantom Tollbooth "did everything wrong.  The general theory at the time was that no child should ever pick up a book and find in it anything he didn't already know about, so they tended to discourage any kind of interesting plots or stories or conflicts.  To top it off, they said fantasy was bad for children because it disorients them."  I still see this attitude, as when T's first grade teacher kept trying to encourage her to read something "more realistic."  But I am by no means convinced that realistic fiction is more realistic in any respect other than the decor of the story.  (I've said more about this in my post How Juvenile Fantasy Will Save the Earth.)  Or, as Juster said of Baum's Oz books, "They started me thinking in a wonderful, imaginative way and made things possible that you knew were not possible - but then again, they were."  He went on to say of The Phantom Tollbooth - but I think it's equally true of all good juvenile fantasy - "Certain things don't change.  What [the book] deals with are still the basic issues for kids in life."  In other words, fantasy is about what's real and important, and it gives kids a way to explore those issues that supposedly realistic fiction often does not.
        When asked what advice Juster had for parents on reading, he replied, "One thing that bothers me now is the constant pressure for kids to read earlier and earlier.  A lot of people want to get their 3-year-old kids into perfect pre-kindergarten, then the perfect kindergarten, up the line to Yale and Harvard, and it's just a very mistaken idea.  What you want to do with your kids is to let them roam around not only in the world, but around their own head, and not immediately tie them into a patterned, structured way of doing things."  He went on to praise the effect of word play, but again I would argue that it isn't just word play (much as I love that) but all of fantasy with its impossible possibilities.  "Word play is wonderful because it changes language, changes your understanding, and opens up the way you perceive things in a completely different way."  This does not disorient kids - On the contrary, it frees their minds, their hearts, and their imaginations.

       If you want to read more of Juster's thoughts on writing, childhood, The Phantom Tollbooth, and more, here are a couple more interviews:

       The quotations from Norton Juster in this post were taken from: McGregor, Amanda, "The Real Power of Imagination," Boston Parents Paper, October 2011: 30-32.

[Picture: "The Phantom Tollbooth Map Quilt," squares made by Westminster Middle School students, assembled by AEGN, 1994.  This quilt is huge, about 10 x 8 feet.  Each of the 20 squares was made by a group of 3 or 4 seventh grade students as part of a unit integrating English, math, and art.]

1 comment:

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Just a post script... Much to our astonishment, P's entry actually won the contest! So we received an autographed copy of the book, and the whole family went to the theater to see the musical production. I thought the production lacked a lot of the charm of the book, and certainly most of the depth, but it was still a lot of fun and P and T adored it. We were thoroughly delighted by it all!