The Phantom Tollbooth turns 50 this year, and we've joined Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer, Milo and Tock, and a host of authors, critics, teachers and kids - to celebrate the classic 1961 children's book, by making the definitive documentary film about this beloved work of the American imagination. Check out www.thephantomtollboothturns50.com for more info.
With conversations - and banter - from Norton and Jules, this documentary explores the educational, political and linguistic back-story and lasting impact of “one of the great works of fantasy in American Literature” (Leonard S Marcus, author of The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth).
We follow Norton and Jules as they return to the house in Brooklyn Heights where Norton began writing a little story "to get his mind off of what he had to do." Working as an architect, Norton was awarded a grant for a book on Urban Perception, which he promptly didn't write. Instead, he created Milo. When he showed his notes to his neighbor, a young political cartoonist bent on overthrowing the government, Jules began sketching – and The Phantom Tollbooth was born.
Through the lens of Milo and his adventures, we get to know Norton Juster – an incorrigible punster with a "delight in glorious lunatic linguistic acrobatics" (Maurice Sendak, in his appreciation to the 35th Anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth). Bored as a kid, wondering why he had to learn so many useless facts, Norton is Milo. And we get taken into Norton’s personal Phantom Tollbooth: where his imagination gets him in trouble for demoralizing the Navy battalion with his drawings of elves; where his friendship with Jane Jacobs and her critique of American cities shows up in Digitopolis and Dictionopolis; where “beyond expectations” takes on a personal meaning for Norton’s daughter and granddaughter as they confront their learning disabilities.
And there’s Jules Feiffer: “that rare artist who can draw an idea," as Maurice Sendak writes in his appreciation. Or as Jules puts it “this was the first children’s book I’d ever done and I thought it was going to be the last. This was the Cold War Fifties, I was interested in overthrowing the government". We’ll look at Jules’ emergence as a voice of his generation through his comic strip at The Village Voice. How much of that era – the politics, the ideas, New York in 1961 – worked its way into his Phantom Tollbooth illustrations? Jules may argue that he illustrated the book more as a favor to a friend – but we just might find his wit, his deft criticism, his radical politics, embedded in those iconic sketches.
And then there’s the cast of authors, historians, teachers, fans, kids, and many more who all have their favorite parts: The Whether Man – “for after all it’s much more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be;" The Island of Conclusions - which you can only get to by jumping; The Terrible Trivium "demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs;" and faithful Tock who just can’t stand to waste time, but does love a nice ride in an automobile.
What are we going to use the funding for?
We are currently mid-way through production – and are looking for funding to finish up by late fall. In the production stages, your support would allow us to interview more authors who have been influenced by the book, children who have been sucked into Milo's world, educators who teach the book year after year, as well as artists who were revolutionizing children's books in the 1950's and 60's. The funds will help us cover travel expenses and equipment. Moving into post production, funding will be used for archival footage, music, editing assistance, sound mixing, animation and graphic design, harddrives, DVDs, and all the other little things that add up!
We want to connect to other people who love the book, who read it to their kids, who remember it from their childhood, who can't get enough of those drawings, of that word play. Despite the risks of making a film independently, there's a type of engagement and artistic freedom that just can't be rivaled. We're excited to have the room to play with the filmmaking and the footage, to take our time to really get to know Norton, Jules and all the other interviewees. Every day someone new tells us, as Jules Feiffer says, "that this book changed my life" - that it was their favorite book as a kid, or that they think about the Terrible Trivium while doing mundane tasks at work, or that they joke about a square meal at the dinner table, or that there is a little Milo in every child. We want to help celebrate the 50th Anniversary edition of the Phantom Tollbooth, and there's no better way to do that than to reach out and to get people excited. And we want you to revisit the book, and find, as we did, that it is just as funny and as wise as the first time you read it!
Here's what the My Paper Crane TOCK doll looks like! Lovingly hand-made - imagine what your favorite character from the book could look like...
Here's some images of the INFOGRAPHICS print designed by the original and talented Jan Avendano. Not only is it beautifully designed, but it reminds us of Rhyme's words to Milo: "But it's not just learning that's important. It's learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn at all that matters." Too cool and too perfect for the project -thank you Jan!
- (34 days)