Wednesday, October 26, 2011
A 50th Anniversary Q & A (and Giveaway!) with Leonard Marcus, Author of THE ANNOTATED PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH
Posted by Esther Hershenhorn
So, pour yourself a cup o’something, and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
Be sure to click on the YouTube link that follows the interview, to meet and learn more from Misters Marcus, Juster and Feiffer.
And, don’t forget to enter our TeachingAuthors Book Giveaway to win a free copy of THE ANNOTATED PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH! Details appear at the end of this post.
(photo credit: Elena Seibert)
(1) Can you recall the When and Where of your first reading of Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH and your first impression?
I was 11 years old when The PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH was published in 1961, so I could have been one of its very first readers--but I wasn't. In fact, I did not read the book for the first time until I had begun to write about children's literature and was immersing myself in the "classics." I had enjoyed Lewis Carroll as a child and when I finally got to THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH a little bell rang and I realized PHANTOM was sort of the ALICE of our time: funny, smart, outrageous, and (just under the skin) mind-expandingly philosophical in just the same way.
(2) Your expansive annotation of this universally-beloved novel includes cultural and literary commentary, artistic context and background as well as your own insights about the novel. How in the world did you ever navigate a project you yourself describe as “of labyrinthine complexity?” Can you also give readers a sense of the project’s time-line, from idea and inspiration to completion?
(3) THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is beloved by millions of children, both current and former. What makes Milo’s adventures in the Lands Beyond a true childhood classic?
When readers meet Milo he's bored out of his mind, in large part because school and the world in general that adults have laid out for him does not make much sense to him. Most children can identify with that feeling. Then something magical happens to lift him out of his boredom. Every child wishes for that, and so can connect with Milo's story in its fantasy aspect too. Throughout the course of Milo's adventures, he faces tricky choices: who to befriend, who to beware of, which way to turn. And while all this is going on at the narrative level, amazing things are happening in the words and pictures--silly, inventive, slapstick, Marx Brothers-like nuttiness and brilliance. It all comes together in the realization that gradually sets in for Milo that meeting the world in an open, flexible, and essentially playful manner, with as few expectations and prejudgements as possible, is the best recipe for navigating a life riddled with uncertainties and surprises. Gradually, Milo comes to trust his ability to think his way through all the confusing times. By the end of his travels, he is anything but bored, and is able to find a world of interest in his own room. I think everyone wants to feel they can handle their "journey" just as Milo learns to do. It makes for a satisfying conclusion to a story that is also jam-packed with wildly-imagined characters and turns of language.
(4) Your previously-published books – including DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM, MINDERS OF MAKE-BELIEVE, GOLDEN LEGACY and AWAKENED BY THE MOON, evince exhaustive research, impeccable scholarship as well as a singular knowledge of the body of children’s literature, its history, its making. What were the challenges of annotating a children's classic?
I wanted this book to be a lot of fun to read. An annotated edition, especially one that takes off from such a funny original work, should serve up its scholarship with double scoops of ice cream. So I looked for quirky items to investigate, such as the "history of the letter W," which Norton references in passing in the section about Dictionopolis. It turns out that the letter W does have a history. One of the best things I discovered about that history is that linguists have long considered the W an "unreliable" letter, in part because its name offers no clue as to the sound it stands for.
I'm fundamentally interested in how children's books mirror our culture, and how that mirror image changes over time. When Norton wrote PHANTOM in 1960/61, the American highway system had just undergone a colossal expansion. So, it wasn't by chance that Milo got to the magic Lands Beyond by car. It was also a time when many Americans were fleeing the nation's once-great cities for the suburbs, and I realized that Norton had snuck some of his most deeply held beliefs as a student of urban planning into PHANTOM--his ideas about what made city life worthwhile and what made it turn dystopic--and it was great to have the chance to point that all out.
I had fun delving into the etymologies of some of the outlandish words Norton himself had had fun using in his manuscript--finding out for instance that it was John Milton who coined "pandaemonium," in PARADISE LOST, as a name for the place where Satan and his henchmen live. It was also interesting that Norton used all these big words at a time of "controlled vocabularies" in school texts. In assuming that young readers could handle such a rich brew of language, Norton was challenging the educational establishment's expectations at the same time that he was challenging children to think beyond their own expectations.
(5) What discovery about the book, the creators and/or their creative process surprised you most?