Given that 2011 is the 50th anniversary of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, there’s a lot of talk these days about this beloved children’s novel. Alfred A. Knopf, the book’s publisher, is celebrating with an anniversary edition of the book that includes an introduction by Juster himself, the re-printing of a 1996 “appreciation” by the one and only Maurice Sendak and closing laudatory comments from the likes of Philip Pullman, Mo Willems, and Suzanne Collins. Also available to fans is Leonard Marcus’ outstanding annotated version of the book, beautifully designed and full of fascinating details that weave in and around Milo’s world and the work that went into creating it.
This is all well and good. So well. So good. The Phantom Tollbooth is a wonder; my only lament that I hadn’t actually read it as a child, as I think it would have been the kind of book that, quite frankly, I would have dug and dug hard. And it’s only fitting to celebrate such a luminous book in American children’s literature, such a distinctive and well-crafted adventure novel. “The Phantom Tollbooth leaps, soars, and abounds in right notes all over the place,” Sendak writes in that appreciation, “as any proper masterpiece must.” Indeed.
That said, I hope that all the attention lavished upon the book’s anniversary doesn’t snuff out any buzz about Juster’s newest offering, Neville, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Smart, tender and funny, it’s a picture book that works on just about every level.
Before we even get to the first spread—this is one of those picture books that doesn’t waste time and gets right to the action on the title page—we see that a big move has taken place. Someone’s stuff is getting lugged down a major highway in a big gray van. Then, on the first spread, we see a young boy, as the van pulls away, all his stuff dumped near the front porch: “Now it was quiet, and there he was, where he really didn’t want to be.”
The boy lives in a new town with no friends. “Just give it a chance,” his mother tells him. Feeling sad and lonely, he ventures out, taking a walk down the block. Eventually, he makes friends after all and decides maybe it won’t be so bad in his new home.
Clearly, there’s no shortage of picture books for young children about this very subject matter.
But … this one has a twist—a clever twist that I won’t give away here, should you want to read this yourself. My role here isn’t necessarily to provide you with traditional reviews anyway, so no griping allowed. (Pretend there’s a smiley emoticon here to offset any cyber-tomatoes perhaps being thrown at me.) I truly wouldn’t want to take that reading experience from you. It’s funny, it’s sweet without being maudlin and every note of it rings true to the emotions of children without being patronizing in the slightest (as a lesser author might have been).
And I find that I cannot often say enough good things about the work of Karas. (Where is that man’s Caldecott anyway?) I doubt there could have been a better fit for illustrator on this title. His small and detailed illustrations of his rosy-cheeked protagonists’ worlds are perfect for depicting the boy’s more isolating moments at the opening of the book—Karas does wonders with white space here—yet his capacity for carefree abandon and unbridled joy work well, too, as the young boy meets his neighbors and they engage in a yell-fest of impressive proportions.
So, when you put down the annotated version of The Phantom Tollbooth, don’t forget about Norton Juster’s latest picture book. Warm and witty, it’s well worth your time.