Norton Juster, the USA TODAY bestselling author best known for writing “The Phantom Tollbooth,” has died, according to his publisher. He was 91.
Dominique Cimina, Random House Children’s Books executive director of publicity confirmed to USA TODAY that Juster passed. The date and cause of death were not immediately available.
His first and best-known work, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” about Milo, a bored 10-year-old who comes home to find a magical toy tollbooth sitting in his room, would go on to win the George C. Stone Centre for Children’s Book Award. The book was also made into a feature film in 1970 and later a musical.
Born in Brooklyn in 1929, Juster studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and spent a year in Liverpool, England, on a Fulbright Scholarship, doing graduate work in urban planning.
After spending three years in the U.S. Navy (1954-1957), he began work as an architect in New York, eventually opening his own firm. He would later teach architecture and planning at Pratt Institute of New York and was a professor of design at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He retired from both to continue writing.
“Tollbooth” began when Juster, who had just left the Navy and was working as an architect, received a grant from the Ford Foundation for a children’s book about cities.
“I submitted a grant to do a children’s book about urban aesthetics, how you experience and use cities,” Juster explained in a 2001 interview with Salon.com. “In six months I was up to my neck in 3-by-5 cards and I realized I was not really enjoying myself. I took a break to visit some friends at the beach and to take my mind off of it, and I began doing what I thought was a little story, going nowhere, just to clear my head. It just kept going… When I had about 50 pages a friend took it to Random House, and they liked it and offered me a contract to finish the book.”
He would go on to write a total of 12 children’s books, with his most recent “Neville,” published in 2011.
On the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Phantom Tollbooth,” Adam Gopnick, writing for the New Yorker, cited the importance of Juster’s work. “So to note the fiftieth birthday of the closest thing that American literature has to an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ of its own, Norton Juster’s ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’—with illustrations, by Jules Feiffer, that are as perfectly matched to Juster’s text as Tenniel’s were to Carroll’s—is to mark an anniversary that matters.”
“Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” author Mo Willems mourned Juster, his “lunch partner,” who Willems said “ran out of stories and passed peacefully last night.”
“Norton’s greatest work was himself: a tapestry of delightful tales. Miss him,” he added.