Author, architect Norton Juster dies at 91 at Northampton home

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    Tori Juster, left, of Amherst reads aloud from "The Hello, Goodbye Window", written by her grandfather, Norton Juster, center, as her mother, Emily Juster, turns the pages of a second copy for the benefit of Smith College Campus School kindergartners visiting at Christopher Heights in Northampton on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.

  • Norton Juster, author of “The Odious Ogre,” is shown at his Amherst home in this undated photo. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/GORDON DANIELS

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    This cover image released by Random House Children’s Books shows "The Phantom Tollbooth" by Norton Juster. The celebrated architect and children’s author who fashioned a special world of his own in “The Phantom Tollbooth” died at age 91. His death was confirmed Tuesday by a spokesperson for Random House Children's Books. (Random House Children’s Books via AP)

Staff Writer
Published: 3/9/2021 5:23:14 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Norton Juster, the author of the celebrated children’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth,” related a story several years ago on National Public Radio that he fell into writing the story because he was bored and doing something the book’s main character does: procrastinating.

“The Phantom Tollbooth,” a tale of a listless and indecisive boy, Milo, who has a series of adventures in a magical land, went on to become a landmark children’s book and a favorite of teachers. But Juster, at the time an architect, wrote it in large part because he’d reached a dead end on another project — a book on cities for children, which he’d received a grant to write.

“I started with great energy and enthusiasm until I found myself waist-deep in stacks of 3-by-5 note cards, exhausted and dispirited,” Juster said in the 2011 broadcast. “This is not what I wanted to do.”

Juster, who died Monday at his home in Northampton at age 91, is remembered today as the author of what’s considered not just an exciting and playful fantasy story but an endorsement of the value of learning and creativity, as well as a celebration of the written word.

Juster wrote several other books for children as well as some for adults. He had also been a practicing architect who taught architecture and design for over 20 years at Hampshire College, and he was a man of widespread interests with a sly sense of humor who could “twist and mold words like a work of art,” as one admirer, Kenneth Rosenthal, put it.

Rosenthal, former interim president of Hampshire College and one of the school’s first employees, had known Juster for years after they met at Hampshire. Juster’s architectural firm also designed an addition to his Amherst home in the 1970s.

“He seemed to have more friends than anyone I knew,” said Rosenthal. “He was interested in so many things, he had a great sense of humor, and he loved the language — he really understood the power of words.”

Rosenthal said the pandemic had cut opportunities in the past year to spend time with Juster, but he noted that until then he was part of a group of friends who helped the writer out with errands and other needs in recent years, such as driving him to an appointment at the VA Medical Center in Leeds (Juster was a Navy veteran).

“We’ll all miss Norton,” he said. “He was a wonderful, creative guy.”

Earl Pope, who lives in Hawley, said he was very close with Juster right to the end: “He was like a brother.” The two taught architecture and design together at Hampshire and also established their architecture firm — Juster Pope Frazier — in the 1970s “in the big city of Shelburne Falls.”

“If you’re an architect, you usually want to start your business in an urban setting, where there’s a lot of building going on, and we started there,” he said with a laugh.

He remembered Juster as a “witty and imaginative person, someone great to share a class with” as well as an adventurous spirit. He recalled that Juster, while studying in England on a Fulbright Scholarship, rode an Italian Vespa scooter — “a little putt-putt machine” — all the way to Rome. He also hitchhiked from New York City, where he was born in 1929, to Los Angeles, Pope said.

“He loved language,” added Pope. “And he loved to travel.” He, Juster, and their wives made a number of trips together over the years in the U.S. and overseas, and Pope says their work as architects took them up and down the East Coast (Pope also designed the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst after Juster had retired from the business).

Travel is a big theme in “The Phantom Tollbooth,” which was published in 1961. Milo, the bored protagonist, finds a mysterious box at home one day that includes a magic tollbooth; driving through it in a toy car, he’s transported to the Kingdom of Wisdom, where he finds two companions, a dog named Tock and the humbug.

Milo’s ensuing adventures lead him and his new friends to try to rescue the Kingdom of Wisdom’s exiled princesses, Rhyme and Reason, and bring color and light back to the land. The young cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who became a good friend of Juster, supplied drawings for the story.

“Tollbooth,” which has sold over 4 million copies and been translated into many languages, earned notice for its puns and wordplay. Maurice Sendak praised the book’s “excitement and sheer delight in glorious lunatic linguistic acrobatics.” It was later adapted for a film and made into a musical.

Juster, who retired from Hampshire in the early 1990s and also lived in Amherst for a time, went on to write several other children’s books, including “The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics,” “Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys,” and more recently “The Odious Ogre,” also illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Eric Carle of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” fame illustrated Juster’s “Otter Nonsense,” which came out in 1982.

Juster’s wife of 54 years, Jeanne, died in 2018. The couple are survived by their daughter, Emily Juster, and a granddaughter, Tori Juster, both of Amherst, as well as several sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews.

Children’s book author Mo Willems of Northampton paid tribute to Juster in a tweet: “My lunch partner, Norton Juster, ran out of stories & passed peacefully last night. Best known for THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH + THE DOT & THE LINE, Norton’s greatest work was himself: a tapestry of delightful tales.”

And Alexandra Kennedy, executive director of the Eric Carle Museum, said in a statement about Juster that “[i]t’s impossible to express how grateful all of us at The Carle were to have known him. Norton was profoundly funny, kind, and loving. He and his wife Jeanne were regular visitors and generous supporters. We had the opportunity to introduce him, through talks and readings, to thousands of our visitors. He was a legend in the children’s book world, but he was also our neighbor and friend.”

“Norton lived a life of creativity and adventure,” Kennedy added. “As his characters in The Phantom Tollbooth remind us, ‘So much is possible just as long as you don’t know they're impossible.’”

A celebration of Juster’s life will take place at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the Jones Library or to the Eric Carle Museum, both in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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