The BiblioFiles Presents: Norton Juster

Norton Juster photo courtesy of Random House

Author photo courtesy of Random House

Just posted! It’s our first BiblioFiles webcast in front of a live audience, and our guest is Norton Juster, author of the legendary book, The Phantom Tollbooth.

Milo is a boy who doesn’t know what to do with himself, isn’t interested in much, and doesn’t see the point in anything. But when a mysterious package containing a toy tollbooth arrives in his room, everything changes.

Past the tollbooth are the Lands Beyond, which house places like Dictionopolis, the Valley of Sound, the Doldrums, Digitopolis, and the Mountains of Ignorance. Milo is soon joined by a pair of unusual travel companions, Tock and Humbug, as he attempts to bring Princesses Rhyme and Reason back to settle the warring kingdoms of Words and Numbers.

First published in 1961, The Phantom Tollbooth is wacky, smart, odd, fun, strange, and completely captivating. It is often compared to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in terms of its intelligence, word play, and impact on children’s literature. Now, in over 50 years of publication, The Phantom Tollbooth, with its iconic illustrations by Jules Feiffer, has been analyzed in scholarly papers, quoted in dissertations, included in graduate classes, documented on film, read aloud in elementary school classrooms, passed along through generations of families, and newly discovered by young readers. It is, and will always be, a seminal book in the history of children’s literature.

In addition to The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster has written The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, Alberic The Wise and Other Journeys, As: A Surfeit of Similies, The Hello, Goodbye Window, Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie, The Odious Ogre, and Neville. In 2011, The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, with introduction and notes by scholar Leonard Marcus, was released.

Follow this link to the BiblioFiles interview

350 for 50

350 for 50 typewriter popWe are delighted to announce the winners of this year’s 350 for 50 contest! An author from three age categories was challenged to write a 350-word story that included the sentence, “There was a rattling noise.” Enjoy!

Sleepless, the Squirrel
By Samantha Gunton, age 10

Sleepless the Squirrel_artwork by Aliisa Lee My eyelids open. I look out the window to see what’s making the noise; three kids in a snowball fight. I get out of bed and put on my slippers. Groggily, I walk down the hallway and out my front door.

“Hey! You’re trespassing!”

The kids don’t even glance my way. I watch as a boy with bad aim throws a snowball at MY tree, which doubles as my house. Grr – how am I going to get rid of them? You know, I wouldn’t have to deal with this if it weren’t for my real estate agent, Larry…

“It’s a great deal!” Larry had exclaimed, “No human beings will bother you!” Regretfully, I had believed him.  Now, I was awake during hibernation. I needed to visit Professor LeNut, the genius, to see whether he could help. I hopped to Professor LeNut’s house and knocked on his bedroom door.

“Hello? You awake?”
There was a rattling noise. What was that?

“Ughh…is it spring yet?” the professor moaned.

“You’re awake! Good. I need your help.” Professor LeNut finished putting his retainer back in its case (that was the rattling sound) and turned to me. “You see those humans out there? I can’t get them to leave.  I need to hibernate.”

“First of all, WHY IN THE NAME OF WALNUTS DID YOU WAKE ME UP?!! Second, just pretend you have rabies. And lastly, how were you able to wake me?? It’s physically impossible to be awoken during hibernation. So either this is a dream or -”

Cutting him off, I said “Thanks!” and ran out. Once outside, I squeaked my way to the smallest kid and started foaming at the mouth.

The little humans got it, shouting, “Rabid squirrel!” They dashed away. I ran like my tail was on fire back to my tree house bedroom. I collapsed on the bed, closed my eyes and thought, “When I wake up, it better be Spring. If not…Larry, you’re going to get it!”

The Last Cabin_artwork by Aliisa LeeThe Last Cabin
By Hugo Kim, age 11

There was a rattling noise. The sound appeared to come from the front door, thought the last man on earth. Two months earlier, the man came to this remote cabin up state to shut the world out and finish his first novel. The cabin didn’t have an address for mail, TV, telephone, or any connection to the civilized world. Disconnected to civilization, he busily typed away on his manual typewriter. He was almost done. Tomorrow, he planned to drive forty miles the nearest post office to drop off his manuscript to a publisher.

What this man didn’t know was that a terrible epidemic had swept around the world. Somehow, a virulent strain of avian flu had combined with a lethal swine flu, mutating into a deadly pandemic. Scientists who discovered this flu called it N8H9 and it was spread through tiny droplets when people coughed.  The incubation period lasted a week. N8H9 was highly contagious and completely resistant to all types of antivirals. In just forty-three days, the entire world’s population had ceased to exist.

He heard the sound again. This time, he could hear someone turning the doorknob. The man got up and walked to his front door. No one knew about this place, so how could he have a visitor? He unlocked the door and opened it. Standing outside was a beautiful woman. She looked very pale and tired. The man asked if he could help the woman. She came closer as if to say something very important. The man leaned close to her face to hear what the last woman on earth had to say. He felt it was going to be something very, very important. That’s when the woman coughed.

The Dragon Princess
By Angelina Han, age 14

The Dragon Princess_artwork by Aliisa LeeThere was a rattling noise beginning somewhere deep inside the dragon’s chest, softening into a delighted clicking sounds and a low purr as the girl tickled the soft skin underneath his chin. The dragon rolled onto his back, spraying green fire from his nostrils for the girl’s amusement. The girl clapped and chortled, running around on her short legs. “Dragon!” The girl babbled, laughing. “Good dragon!” Her tightly curled hair bobbed in tandem with her small white dress. The dragon tilted his head to the side, pondering the strange little creature. He’d never seen anything like this before, and what were those noises she was making? It didn’t matter. He liked her already, and with a swoop of his great golden wings, he picked her up. She squealed with happiness as she flew for the first time, oblivious to the shouts below and the crown that had fallen off of her head into the dewy grass. The dragon carried her to his nest, and she stayed there with him.

Fourteen summers had tumbled by with laughing footsteps and constellation-filled nights when the girl and the dragon returned again to the spot where they had first met so long ago, though neither knew it. The girl had grown into lovely young lady with golden ringlets looping down her back, and she had all but forgotten her brief time with the humans. The dragon was her father now, and they communicated in sounds that dragons used. As they walked silently through the field still hung with morning dew, the girl tripped over an object that lay half sunken and long forgotten in the mud. She picked it up curiously, and it glinted in the rising sun like the dragon’s scales. A silver crown, bent and tarnished with moss crawling over it in spongy strands. A memory came to port on the foggy sea of her consciousness, and the girl slowly lifted the crown to her head.

“Dragon,” she whispered, her lips struggling to form the once-familiar words. She smiled at the dragon, who looked at her with large iridescent eyes. “Good dragon.”

Artwork by Aliisa Lee

Podcasts! Podcasts! Podcasts!

bibliofiles artwork by aliisa leeI’m delighted to announce that the BiblioFiles, our illuminating interviews with children’s book authors, are now available as podcasts! Download interviews with Phillip Pullman, Sharon Creech, Candace Fleming, Atinuke, Rebecca Stead, Gary Schmidt, Trenton Lee Stewart, M.T. Anderson, and more!

To visit the main site (which includes webcasts and interview transcripts), click here.
To visit podcast central, click here.

Interestingly enough, it was Lloyd Alexander who inspired this program.

Back in 2003, when I was still in graduate school, I decided to start reading children’s literature to counter all the academic reading I was tackling. Seeking some of my old favorites, I discovered that, happily, some authors had kept writing while I was detoured by college, working life, and graduate school. While reacquainting myself with Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (“A Fflam thrives on danger!”), I found his 2003 book, The Gawgon and the Boy.

It’s a wonderful story about a boy named David who, after recovering from a life-threatening illness, is tutored by his Aunt Annie (a tough individual he secretly names “The Gawgon,” after the mythological monster, the Gorgon). However, as they spend more time together, the boy realizes what a true treasure the Gawgon is. I found the book to be lively, unique, and utterly heartwarming (later, I learned that it was also semiautobiographical, which makes it even more wondrous). So, at the tender age of 28, I wrote my first letter to an author, sharing how much I had loved reading his book.

And Mr. Alexander wrote back!

So I wrote him back!

And he wrote me back!

I wrote my last letter to him in 2006. I described how I had just moved to New Jersey, having accepted a job at the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University. I told him my greatest hope was to design creative literacy programs for children that would be worthy of the Gawgon. In the back of my mind, I had already decided that I once I got my legs under me, I would invite Mr. Alexander to the library for a visit.

Unfortunately, it was not to be; he passed away in 2007. I was incredibly saddened by the news. While I had already shared, through my letters, how much I loved his books, I would never get to truly voice my gratitude to him. I would never get to ask him questions about his writing and hear his responses. The conversation I wanted to have with him  about his characters, his inspirations, and his experiences was no longer possible. I decided that I needed to find a way to record and preserve conversations with the creators of brilliant, creative, beautiful, funny, and thoughtful children’s books.

Thus, the BiblioFiles. It took some time to get the program up and running, but in 2009, I aired my first interview with the enormously talented Kenneth Oppel. It was recorded in a tiny room at WPRB, a local radio station. Shortly after that, we moved to the University’s new Broadcast Center. Originally, the interviews were aired during the All-Ages Show, a children’s radio program. Then the interviews became webcasts, and our online archive was launched. Now, the interviews are downloadable as podcasts!

It’s my sincerest wish that you find inspiration in these interviews. Perhaps you’ll gain some good advice about writing, hear a character’s voice come to life, discover an interesting behind-the-scenes story, or simply learn what your favorite author’s laugh sounds like! I hope that the conversations evoke deeper connections to the books you love, and introduce you to new books you have yet to discover. Listen, laugh, ponder, discover, but most of all, enjoy.

BiblioFiles artwork by the super talented Aliisa Lee. 

Deepest heartfelt thanks to Dan Kearns, the Princeton University Broadcast Center’s sound engineer extraordinaire.

An additional shout out to Lance Harrington, the Broadcast Center’s resident wizard, for his endless patience and assistance in launching the podcast site!