Norton Juster is best known for his beloved children’s novel The Phantom Tollbooth, a mainstay of bestseller, must-read, and critically acclaimed lists of books for young people. Juster was born in Brooklyn on June 2, 1929 to Samuel Juster, a Romanian-born Jew who assiduously worked his way founding his own architectural firm, and Minnie Silberman, a Polish-Jewish woman who managed the firm and ultimately raised four children. The family lived in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, and although they were not wealthy, they were modestly well-off.
As a child, Juster devoured books and radio programs. He attended James Madison High School and matriculated in the University of Pennsylvania’s fine arts program in 1952 with a plan to study architecture like his father. There Juster, who hoped to go beyond his father’s humble architectural projects, studied under Lewis Mumford and attended lectures by Lewis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright.
After graduating with accolades and academic prizes, he went to England to study for a year under the Fulbright scholarship. Juster knew he may have to be involved in the military due to Cold War conflicts, so rather than being drafted he enlisted in the Civil Engineer Corps of the United States Naval Reserve. Juster first spent time in Morocco but was then sent to the wastes of Newfoundland, where boredom led him to first start writing for children. Despite hostility from his commanding officer, he finished the satirical fairy tale “The Passing of Irving.”
Juster’s last posting was in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He rented an apartment, and befriended his neighbor Jules Feiffer, who would later illustrate The Phantom Tollbooth. Outside his desk job, he was a roguish dilettante of sorts, looking for dates and enjoying the city.
When he was discharged, he took a job at an architecture firm and also worked part-time at the Pratt Institute. He began to submit pieces on architecture to publications like The Village Voice and The New York Herald Tribune.
Juster began working on what would be Phantom in 1960. The book was published in 1961 and eventually became astonishingly popular. Juster followed this with The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1963). In 1965, he published Alberic the Wise, three lyrical quest fables.
Juster worked at a small architectural firm and continued to teach part-time. He published other works throughout the subsequent decades, including Otter Nonsense (1982) and The Hello, Goodbye Window (2005), which won the Caldecott Award for illustrations.
Juster lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with his second wife Jeanne. He continues to write, and is working on adapting a short story into a ballet.