Tollbooth fans, thank Colonel Lemuel Q Snoopnagle and Juster senior for Norton Juster’s particular brand of humor. Snoopnagle, on his radio program, specialized in spoonerisms (a play on words where two opening syllables are switched) while Juster senior, an architect, would greet his oblivious young son with puns every morning.
“You’re a good kid. I’d like to see you get ahead. You need one.”
Clearly, both influences rubbed off. Light dawned on marble head and Juster has been a gunny pie ever since.
As part of this year’s “Gateway to Reading” Lowell Lecture Series, Juster visited the Boston Public Library last week in an event moderated by Megan Lambert of Simmons college. While Lambert was on a mission to coax Juster into recounting for us some stories he had told her previously over coffee, Juster mostly read some passages from his famous book, The Phantom Tollbooth and shared some stories behind the story. The event was filmed and will be available on the BPL site, but in the meantime:
- on his writing process: “I discovered as a writer I simply could not start here, end there. I could only do bits and pieces.” So he’d put all his pieces into a drawer and come back periodically to write more bits, until he had an entire story
- while in the Navy, Juster began sketching, and he would hang his pictures all over the boat to dry. His captain chewed him out for drawing fairies and castles and elves.
- Milo, of course, is Juster as a boy; Tock is the perfect mentor you can trust; and because life’s not like that, Juster threw in the Humbug
on how Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist for The Village Voice, ended up illustrating Tollbooth: since they shared an apartment at one point, Feiffer was one of the first people to read Tollbooth. He liked it so much, he began drawing little scenes for fun
- send in the cat cavalry: Feiffer was adamant about not drawing horses, so he begged Juster to put the armies of wisdom on cats instead. Juster said no. In fact, he went out of his way to describe impossible things to draw, for example, the Three Giants of Compromise
- Feiffer’s revenge: the Whether Man is Feiffer’s portrait of Juster in a toga
- the one little kid that got it: usually, kids want to know where his ideas come from, or how much he makes. At one school visit, though, a boy asked Juster what was the point of school, anyway, since all he did was memorize boring facts
- Juster replied, to make connections between the facts–a life-long process
- the boy: and then what?
- Juster answered, and then you die.
Juster concluded the event with a Cinderella story ripe with spoonerisms. It ended with the kicker, “if the foo shits, wear it!” (Sigh. And that’s why spoonerisms have gone out of fashion.) Commented another little boy during the Q&A: what did that story mean? It made no sense.
If he had mentioned the lack of Rhyme and Reason, he would have brought down the house.