On Wednesday night I attended the annual Authors Guild gala, which helps raise money for literacy awareness, copyright enforcement and writers’ rights. I went as the date of a friend who is a big macher in children’s literature: There’s no way I could have been there under my own steam since tables went for as much as $50,000, and the cheapest individual ticket was $600.
For the first time, the event honored creators of children’s literature. The Guild gave its Distinguished Service Award to Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy (which, ahem, explores some very High-Holidays-worthy themes), and Collins chose three other beloved authors who write for young people to share their thoughts about why they do what they do.
Among the three was Norton Juster, author of The Phantom Tollbooth, one of my favorite children’s books ever. (If it’s not one of your favorite children’s books ever—or if your children are under the age of 54 and you haven’t read it to them yet—I don’t even want to talk to you.) When I got to my assigned table, I discovered I was seated next to him. I desperately looked around for a paper bag to breathe into.
Let me try to explain what The Phantom Tollbooth meant to me as a kid. I was a wee nerd who strongly preferred books to her fellow humans. I loved wordplay and jokes, but I was too shy and dorky to share them. And here was this book that was a giant, hilarious adventure in a world of words. Along with Milo I could visit the Isle of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), meet the .58 child (part of the 2.58 children in the average family; you’d think it would be hard to be only-slightly-more-than-half a child, but hey, since the average family has 1.3 automobiles, and he’s the only one who can drive three-tenths of a car, he gets to use it all the time!), and visit a market of words where shoppers could buy super-fancy expensive words like “quagmire” and “flabbergast,” or a few pounds of cheap words like “happy.” Do-it-yourselfers could buy individual letters and punctuation marks. After the man running the DIY wagon hands Milo an A,
Milo nibbled carefully at the letter and discovered that it was quite sweet and delicious—just the way you’d expect an A to taste.
“I knew you’d like it,” laughed the letter man, popping two G’s and an R into his mouth and letting the juice drip down his chin. “A’s are one of our most popular letters. All of them aren’t that good,” he confided in a low voice. “Take the Z, for instance—very dry and sawdusty. And the X? Why, it tastes like a trunkful of stale air. That’s why people hardly ever use them. But most of the others are quite tasty. Try some more.”
He gave Milo an I, which was icy and refreshing, and Tock a crisp, crunchy C.
“Most people are just too lazy to make their own words,” he continued, “but it’s much more fun.”
And remember the part when Milo secretly conducts the daily sunrise instead of waking up Chroma at 5:23?
As if understanding his signal perfectly, a single piccolo played a single note and off in the east a solitary shaft of cool lemon light flicked across the sky. Milo smiled happily and then cautiously crooked his finger again. This time two more piccolos and a flute joined in and three more rays of light danced lightly into view. Then with both hands he made a great circular sweep in the air and watched with delight as all the musicians began to play at once.
The cellos made the hills glow red, and the leaves and grass were tipped with a soft pale green as the violins began their song. Only the bass fiddles rested as the entire orchestra washed the forest in color.
Ahhh. Suddenly I am all swept up in the awesome again. And I am reminded that one of the reasons I knew Jonathan was the man I wanted to marry was that The Phantom Tollbooth was one of his favorite books. He could still quote it at length, still has his battered childhood copy from the 1960s.
So I sat down next to Mr. Juster, who was wearing a spectacular cherry-print tie and had twinkly eyes, and gasped out how much his work had meant to me. And he was super gracious. And throughout the night, when people crept over to our table and said the exact same things to him that I’d said, he was super-gracious to every single one of them too.
During the meal, we chatted about his time in the Navy (he was stationed in Newport, as was my dad, a couple of decades later), about his stint in a mobile naval unit that helped build roads in Morocco, about eating his mom’s delicious kasha varnishkes in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, about teaching at Hampshire College. At one point, we were chatting about how kids love wordplay, and I told him how Josie and Maxie and I have limerick-writing competitions on car trips. He said, “You’re an excellent mother,” which I will remind my kids the next time they are both telling me how much I suck.
At one point he accidentally poked me with his knife and I will never wash that place on my wrist again.
When it was time for the speeches, Suzanne Collins said, “I write for kids because childhood is where the foundation of our thinking is laid, and I want to be a part of that.” She talked of how we need to be honest with our kids, at much earlier ages than we do, about the meaning of and cost of war. Collins’s editor (and fellow author) David Levithan, talked about why telling the truth to kids is so important, and why even though genre literature (science fiction, fantasy, romance, children’s literature) is frequently scorned, in reality, everyone knows that “the kids’ table is the coolest place to be.”
Mr. Juster spoke of his childhood in a book-loving home. “Every day was an adventure in semantic mayhem,” he said. His parents had multiple shelves of thousand-page Yiddish and Russian novels in translation. He used to read them before he could understand the words. “I just loved the language and the way the words sounded,” he said.
He started writing children’s books when he was living on a Navy ship in Newfoundland; while there, he also drew pictures of gremlins and fairies and princesses and hung them in the bulkhead…until his commanding officer told him to cut it out, because it was weird. When he was back in Brooklyn, working as an architect, he wrote The Phantom Tollbooth and his upstairs neighbor, Jules Feiffer, illustrated it. And the rest is history.
And that’s all. I presume that after the event, Mr. Juster and his beautiful wife Jeanne got back into their little car and drove through the Phantom Tollbooth back to Western Massachusetts. Please don’t tell me otherwise.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.