Monday, April 7, 2014

Norton Juster is a rock star.

I arrived at the Boston Public Library about an hour early to hear Norton Juster, a children's author best known for a gentle 1961 fantasy called The Phantom Tollbooth. I was seventh in line. I was not the oldest one there, nor was I primarily surrounded by people in the children's book biz (though plenty of them soon joined the line). Several generations of Juster's fans eventually filled the lecture hall, abuzz with twenty-, thirty-, forty-year-old memories of discovering his work and with plans to hand signed copies to children and grandchildren.

Juster, in conversation with Megan Lambert, showed off a sense of humor that echoed a nearly-bygone generation of comedy (think Mel Brooks or Rodney Dangerfield). But amid all the friendly pot-shots at himself was a sense of wonder, of joy in the realization that everything we learn is connected. In particular, he exuded wonder in wordplay (punder, if you will). Much as we all enjoyed Juster's answers to Lambert's questions, he had three pun-laden passages to read from TPT, and until he got those puns out, he cut every tangent short with a "but let's get back to the story."

As often happens in Q&A sessions (am I right, events team?), many of the audience members began their questions with comments. And by "comments," I mean "gushing." Everyone had stories of growing up with Milo or of sharing his adventures with children. One mom said that her seventeen-year-old daughter had read TPT recently and had asked her to share that it had made her less "jaded."

So what is it about this book? I think its core lies in the title of Chapter 9: "It's All in How You Look at Things." Milo sees life as boring until he encounters new ways of looking at words, numbers, sight, sound, height, hunger, rhyme, and reason. Juster looked at The Phantom Tollbooth as a way to put off a more technical writing project. And I look at Norton Juster as a rock star.

Check out the BPL's Lowell Lecture Series here.

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