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Norton Juster Talks Childhood And Career At DMA's BooksmART Festival

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Kids in Dallas are so lucky. There are always cool free things for them to do, and they have time to do them as long as their parents will take them. Take the first BooksmART Festival at the Dallas Museum of Art this past Saturday.

The museum hummed with kids looking at art, listening to storytellers and getting autographs from author and illustrators including David Weisner and Jerry Pinkney. But I had stupid deadlines and commitments that day, and I had just enough time to pop into the fest to hear one of my heroes, Norton Juster, speak.

Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, last year's The Odious Ogre (with his friend and Tollbooth collaborator Jules Feiffer), and Neville, which will be released in October.

The Horchow Auditorium was practically full for Juster's speech, which he started by reminiscing about his haunted childhood, in which there were no inanimate objects. "Shoes, chairs, vegetables, dishes, toothpaste tubes, dining tables" were all strangely alive. The vacuum cleaner was stern and not trustworthy. The umbrella stand was treacherous. "I thought adult life was very simple compared to my demon-ridden world," he said. Just your typical childhood anxiety.

No telling what young kids might have taken from the story of Juster's childhood and career, but neurotic adults (who, me?) surely enjoyed hearing that after he signed a contract to complete The Phantom Tollbooth, which he'd started writing while procrastinating on writing a children's book about cities, he immediately got depressed "because it wasn't for fun anymore."

Juster's neighbor in his Brooklyn apartment building, Jules Feiffer, read portions of Tollbooth as it took shape. "He would read them very carefully and offer a lot of unwanted feedback," Juster said. And, unbeknownst to Juster, Feiffer started illustrating the book, which led to the famous collaboration and some good-natured mutual tormenting.

Juster said The Three Demons of Compromise in The Phantom Tollbooth were a special gift to Feiffer, described as "one tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third exactly like the other two." Draw that, sucker. Seriously, do it. Feiffer didn't illustrate them. And when Juster had the Armies of Wisdom coming to Milo's rescue on horseback, Feiffer complained that he didn't like drawing horses and asked if they could be riding cats instead. Um, no.

Juster wrapped up his speech with a message delivered through a book passage starring his favorite Tollbooth character, the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, a dirty bird that takes words out of context to twist their meaning.

The message, Juster concluded, is that "being out of context is one of the great, creative, liberating experiences in our lives." He urged us to "spend a large part of your time out of context."

But then, before the question-and-answer period, my moment out of context was over. I had to duck out because, stupidly trying to save a few bucks, I'd parked at a stupid parking meter that stupid Dallas requires even on weekends, and only gives 15 stupid minutes per quarter.

I would have rather stuck around to get my copy of Tollbooth signed by Juster, except I couldn't find it when I'd rushed around that morning, trying to get out of the house in time. Plus I'd had to make a stupid stop at the stupid bank, and I also had to get to the stupid supermarket that day, and I had stupid work to do. Stupid adulthood.

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