11 Whimsical Facts About The Phantom Tollbooth

istock (blank book)
istock (blank book)

Norton Juster’s 1961 tale of a bored boy who travels to a magical land is more than it seems—as its plot enchants, The Phantom Tollbooth also manages to illustrate the joys of learning. The story behind the book's creation is just as fascinating, so we’ve compiled some fun facts for your next journey through the Kingdom of Wisdom.

1. The Phantom Tollbooth is a product of Juster’s procrastination.

After serving three years in the Navy, Juster returned to his hometown of Brooklyn to work as an architect. He received a $5,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to write a children’s book about cities, but overwhelmed by the amount of research it required, decided to take a vacation. Upon returning, Juster’s guilt over his lack of progress on the city book led him to start writing snippets of stories about a little boy named Milo—who happened to be quite similar to a young Juster. As Juster told NPR, “In order to stop thinking about cities, I had to start thinking about something else.”

2. Juster’s childhood synesthesia shaped the book.

Synesthesia is the condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another. It causes the afflicted to inexplicably associate a sound with a specific color, or perhaps a word with a color—the condition manifests differently in each synesthete.

Juster’s synesthesia caused him to associate numbers with colors, and similarly, words and images. Although he eventually grew out of it, the visual blurring of senses is evident in his writing. Juster once noted, “When I start to write I have to create visually, no matter how abstract, no matter how undefined. … It’s not only that I would have been a different writer had I not had that very developed visual sense, I don’t think I would have been a writer at all.”

3. Despite the similarities, Juster wasn't inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between the Kingdom of Wisdom and fantastical worlds like Narnia, the Emerald City, or Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s protagonist Alice is, like Milo, a bored child frustrated with reality; later, they both discover new worlds where “things aren’t always what they seem.” However, Juster’s inspiration came from a different source. The Phantom Tollbooth was heavily influenced by Juster’s father’s love of puns and wordplay, and further shaped by a childhood spent listening to the radio and imagining what could be.

4. A “boy who asked too many questions” inspired Milo.

While struggling with his book on cities, Juster had an interesting encounter with a young boy who asked him, “What is the biggest number there is?” The always-clever Juster replied, “Tell me what you think is the biggest number there is,” and then repeatedly told the boy to add one to that number, leading to a discussion about infinity. Thus, the “boy who asked too many questions” was born.

5. Milo’s watchdog had radio roots.

The character Tock was based on Jim Fairfield from Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, a popular radio show during Juster’s childhood. Tock, the “watchdog,” befriends Milo early in the book and accompanies him on his adventures. Jack Armstrong’s “Uncle Jim” was not a canine, but he did share Tock’s wisdom, courage, and adventurous spirit.

6. The iconic illustrations are the product of a lucky coincidence.

Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist who lived in the same apartment building as Juster, would often hear the author pacing in his apartment as he was working on Tollbooth. Curious, Feiffer asked to see some of Juster’s manuscripts, and soon found himself illustrating scenes from the book. Feiffer sketched his original drawings on flimsy pieces of tracing paper, most of which have now been lost or damaged. Feiffer later remarked, “Had Norton told me he was writing a classic, I would have done the drawings on nicer paper.”

7. Juster and Feiffer fell into a (mostly) playful power struggle.

Juster did most of the cooking for the pair and later joked that if Feiffer wanted to eat, he had to draw. The two got into it constantly: Juster frequently described scenes that were impossible to draw, and Feiffer responded by drawing things the way he wanted. Feiffer, for example, wasn’t good at drawing horses, so he drew the armies of wisdom riding in on cats instead. Despite their creative differences, the two remain good friends today.

8. It was supposed to be a flop …

As Juster told The New Yorker in 2011, the initial sales projections for his collaboration with Feiffer weren’t great. “Everyone said this is not a children’s book, the vocabulary is much too difficult, the wordplay and the punning they will never understand, and anyway fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them.”

9. But The New Yorker saved the day.

A glowing review from The New Yorker critic Emily Maxwell paved the way for the book's success. Maxwell adored it, comparing its themes to John Bunyan’s 17th century classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. She wrote, “As ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ is concerned with the awakening of the sluggardly spirit, ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ is concerned with the awakening of the lazy mind.”

10. Juster spent most of his career as an architect, not an author.

Although The Phantom Tollbooth became a classic, Juster wrote only a few more books (the most famous of which is The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics). Instead, he spent most of his working life as an architect. Juster served as a professor of architecture and environmental design at Hampshire College for more than 20 years and even co-founded a small architectural firm in 1970.

11. Juster wanted to demonstrate that learning is a “world we enter.”

In a 2011 installment of NPR’s All Things Considered, Juster shared his motivation for writing the book:

The prevailing wisdom of the time held that learning should be more accessible and less discouraging. The aim was that no child would ever have to confront anything that he or she didn't already know. But my feeling is that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don't know yet—the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure.

Artificial Intelligence Identifies Shakespeare's Co-Writer on 'Henry VIII'

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

William Shakespeare has long been celebrated as the greatest playwright of all time (and he's certainly the most quoted). Historians have speculated whether his name might be a pseudonym for a lesser-known writer or whether he had assistance in composing his plays, among other theories. In 2016, Oxford University Press credited Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe as co-writer of three plays in Henry VI.

Now, new evidence has come to light that casts doubt on Shakespeare’s sole authorship, this time for Henry VIII. According to an analysis [PDF] published prior to peer review on arXiv.org, the Bard wrote roughly half of Henry VIII. His contemporary, playwright John Fletcher, wrote the rest.

The conclusion was based on the findings of an algorithm taught to examine word choice and writing style, created by researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague.

The program first "learned" each writer’s approach to their craft by reading four plays by Fletcher and by Shakespeare, written at about the same time. The algorithm identified traits unique to each. Fletcher, for example, tended to use ye instead of you, or ‘em in place of them.

The algorithm was then applied to Henry VIII. It earmarked the first two scenes as being written by Shakespeare. Fletcher wrote the next four. The writers' styles then mixed until later in the play, when Shakespeare’s voice appeared to take hold.

Collaboration among playwrights was common in the era, and scholars have long believed Fletcher was somehow involved—possibly assisting an aging Shakespeare.

Nineteenth-century literary analyst James Spedding theorized in 1850 that Fletcher had co-written the play; Fletcher had succeeded Shakespeare as the house playwright of the King’s Men Acting Company following the Bard's death in 1616. Spedding even surmised who wrote which scene. This most recent analysis loosely lines up with his findings.

[h/t Smithsonian]

11 Fascinating Facts About Mark Twain

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mark Twain is widely considered the author of the first great American novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but his rollicking tales aren’t the only legacy he left behind. His poignant quotes and witticisms have been told and retold (sometimes erroneously) over the last century and a half, and his volume of work speaks for itself. Over the course of his legendary career, Twain—real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens—wrote more than a dozen novels plus countless short stories and essays and still found time to invent new products, hang out with famous scientists, and look after a house full of cats.

1. Mark Twain is a nautical reference.

Like many of history’s literary greats, Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) decided to assume an alias early on in his writing career. He tried out a few different names—Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and, more plainly, Josh—before settling on Mark Twain, which means two fathoms (12 feet) deep in boating jargon. He got the idea while working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River—a job he held for four years until the Civil War broke out in 1861, putting a halt to commerce. (However, another popular theory holds that he earned the nickname in a bar. According to reports in a couple of 19th-century newspapers, he’d walk into a pub and call out “mark twain!,” prompting the bartender to take a piece of chalk and make two marks on a wall for twain—two—drinks. Twain denied this version of events, though.)

2. In addition to being a steamboat pilot, Mark Twain also worked as a miner.

Shortly after his stint on The Big Muddy, Twain headed west with his brother to avoid having to fight in the war. He took up work as a miner in Virginia City, Nevada, but the job wasn't for him. (He described it as "hard and long and dismal.") Fortunately for Twain, he didn’t have to work there long. In 1862, he was offered his first writing job for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he covered crime, politics, mining, and culture.

3. A story Mark Twain heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

An old photo of the Angels Hotel
Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1864, Twain headed to Calaveras County, California in hopes of striking gold as a prospector (he didn’t). However, it was during his time here that he heard the bartender of the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp share an incredulous story about a frog-jumping contest. Twain recounted the tale in his own words in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was published in 1865 in The New York Saturday Press and went on to receive national acclaim.

4. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

A cover of an old copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Twain started writing the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, but he wasn’t too pleased with his progress. After writing about 400 pages, he told a friend he liked it "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. He put the project on the back burner for several years and finally finished it in 1883 following a burst of inspiration.

5. Mark Twain invented a board game.

While Twain was putting off writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was busy working on a game he dubbed Memory Builder. It was originally supposed to be an outdoor game to help his children learn about England’s monarchs, but he ended up turning it into a board game to improve its chances of selling. However, after two years of work, it was still too convoluted to be marketable and required a vast knowledge of historical facts and dates. That didn’t stop him from patenting the game, though.

6. Mark Twain created "improved" scrapbooks and suspenders.

Memory Builder wasn't Twain's only invention; he also patented two other products. One was inspired by his love of scrapbooking, while the other came about from his hatred of suspenders. He designed a self-adhesive scrapbook that works like an envelope, which netted him about $50,000 in profits. His “improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” also ended up being useful, but for an entirely different purpose than Twain originally intended. According to The Atlantic, “This clever invention only caught on for one snug garment: the bra. For those with little brassiere experience, not a button, nor a snap, but a clasp is all that secures that elastic band, which holds up women's breasts. So not-so-dexterous ladies and gents, you can thank Mark Twain for that."

7. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at home.

Only one video of Twain exists, and it was shot by none other than his close friend, Thomas Edison. The footage was captured in 1909—one year before the author died—at Twain’s estate in Redding, Connecticut. He’s seen sporting a light-colored suit and his usual walrus mustache, and one scene shows him with his daughters, Clara and Jean. On a separate occasion that same year, Edison recorded Twain as he read stories into a phonograph, but those audio clips were destroyed in a fire. No other recording of Twain’s voice exists.

8. Mark Twain did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Mark Twain standing near a window while wearing a white suit and smoking a pipe
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When you think of Mark Twain, you probably picture him in an all-white suit with a cigar or pipe hanging from his lips. It’s true that he was photographed in a white suit on several occasions, but he didn’t start this habit until later in life. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “In December 1906, he wore a white suit while appearing before a congressional committee regarding copyright. He did this for dramatic emphasis. Several times after that he wore white out of season for effect.” He also refused to trade his white clothes for “shapeless and degrading black ones” in the winter, no matter how cold it got. So take that, people who subscribe to the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

9. At one point, Mark Twain had 19 cats.

Twain really, really liked cats—so much so that he had 19 of them at one time. And if he was traveling, he would “rent” cats to keep him company. In fact, he had a much higher opinion of felines than humans, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” He also had a talent for coming up with some great cat names; Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, Bambino, and Satan were just a few of the kitties in his brood.

10. Mark Twain probably didn’t say that thing you think he said.

Twain is one of the most misquoted authors in history. According to one quote wrongfully attributed to him, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What Twain actually said was, “[He] was endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times and tie.” There are many, many examples of these.

11. Mark Twain accurately predicted when he would die.

When he was born on November 30, 1835, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth. It appears roughly every 75 years, and Twain predicted he would die the next time it graced the sky. As he put it in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.” He ended up passing away at his Connecticut home on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky once again.

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