An invitation to the tollbooth; Norton Juster, Jules Feiffer and the
prolific Jane Yolen among authors at DNA Lit Fest.
Reporter: MARY SCHULTE
Publication: THE KANSAS CITY STAR Edition: METROPOLITAN Section: A+E Page: G8
For Norton Juster, the DNA Children’s Literature Festival on March 28-29 will be like old home week.
Two of his buddies, author Jane Yolen and illustrator Jules Feiffer, will gather with authors and illustrators Linda Sue Park, Kate Feiffer, Laurie Keller and Giselle Potter for the 12th annual conference on children’s books, sponsored by the Reading Reptile.
Juster and Feiffer have a long history as friends and as creators of the classic The Phantom Tollbooth, which was published 47 years ago and still enthralls readers today with Juster’s pun-filled writing and Feiffer’s line drawings of young Milo.
“Some time ago, during a talk with students, one little boy asked if I thought my book was going to be around for 45 years, ” Juster said in a recent phone interview from his home in Amherst, Mass. “I said I wasn’t sure it would be around for 45 minutes! Somehow it struck a chord with kids.”
The book came about when Juster and Feiffer were living in a decrepit apartment building in Brooklyn Heights — Juster on the fourth floor, Feiffer on the third.
“I pace when I write, ” Juster explained. “And it drove him crazy! He finally came up to see what I was doing. He looked at the story and a couple of days later he brought up some drawings for it.”
Milo, the boy who travels through the tollbooth, is based on Juster as a child. In the book Milo is introduced in the first chapter:
“When he was in school, he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going.”
The more Juster wrote, the more he recalled about his childhood and how out of sorts he felt.
“I was the weird, discontented kid who didn’t understand why they were stuffing all this information into my head, ” Juster said.
“But you must ask me about my influences. I had two primary influences. One was my aunt, who every Christmas and birthday gave me an Oz book; there were many more than just the wizard one. … And the Marx Brothers. I was at the perfect age when I was seeing their films. They were full of nonsense and fun.” The word play in his book can also be traced to his father.
“My father drove me nuts with puns. Only later did I appreciate the cleverness and think, ‘Hey, this is fun.’ “
For Jane Yolen, the fun is in writing every day.
“I write all the time, ” she said in a phone interview from her home in Hatfield, Mass., just minutes from Amherst.
“We writers keep a close eye on each other, ” she said of her 30-year friendship with Juster. While he recently reignited his children’s book writing career, after retiring from decades of running his architecture firm, Yolen has written an incredible number of books during her 47-year career as a children’s author.
Called the “Hans Christian Andersen of America” because of her many fairy tale books and collections of fairy tales, Yolen also has penned science fiction stories, picture books about dinosaurs, novels aboutwizards and dragons, and poetry.
“I added them up the other day, ” Yolen said, when asked for a specific number. “I have 303 books published or under contract. So, that breaks down to about 270 published and 33 or so under contract and in the works. Some aren’t written yet, but they’re under contract. I have eight books coming out this year.” Yolen comes from a family of storytellers, one of the topics she plans to discuss with the students at her sessions in the DNA conference. Her mother was a writer, her father was a writer and two of her three children are writers.
“Books were always important to us. Writing is like the family business. I fell into children’s writing though. I took a piece to an editor as an adult book and was told it should be a children’s book. I had been a journalist and a poet, so I decided I needed to go to a class to learn about children’s writing. My first book that sold was nonfiction. In the class I wrote my second children’s book, and it was in rhyme.”
Yolen has co-written a dozen books with her daughter, Heidi Stemple, and said they write in rhyme more easily than in prose. They are currently working on a rhyming book that developed from a comment an editor made.
“We’re about halfway done, ” Yolen said. “It’s gone in three different directions already. I write a little bit, then send it to Heidi and say, ‘Your turn.’ “
That family collaboration will be her topic of discussion with the children at the DNA festival, but what about her speech for the adult session on Saturday? “Being a professional writer and what that entails, ” she said emphatically. Then she added with a laugh, “But of course, I haven’t written it yet, so if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”
Owner of a photography business based in Kansas City that delivers storytelling images for small businesses, non-profits and Life Seniors. Adjunct professor at Johnson County Community College.
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