While beloved as a children’s book author, Juster’s primary vocation throughout his life was architecture, telling an interviewer that “I grew up in architecture, my father was an architect, my brother, who is four and a half years old, was training and then became an architect. I had no idea I was every going to be a writer or anything like that.” After attending college, he joined the US Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps, which he described as a “terrific experience,” but in which “a lot of your time is wasted.” To help pass the time, he began drawing and writing, and was chastised by his CO for it.
After leaving the Navy, he joined a New York architectural firm, and began to think about writing a book that would teach children about cities. He ultimately got a grant for the project, and began writing. It didn’t go well: “I started with great energy and enthusiasm until I found myself waist-deep in stacks of 3-by-5 note cards, exhausted and dispirited,” He told NPR in 2011. “This is not what I wanted to do.” He began to think about another story, and “The Phantom Tollbooth came about because I was trying to avoid doing something else.”
While looking for that other story, he was inspired by a conversation he had with a boy about the notion of infinity, and began writing the story that would ultimately become The Phantom Tollbooth.
The story follows a boy named Milo who gets an unexpected gift: a tollbooth and a map, which transports him to some new, strange lands, like Expectations, the Doldrums, and Dicionopolis, The Kingdom of Wisdom, and others. The novel was published in 1961, and went on to become a major classic, earning comparisons to the likes of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice and Wonderland. The book would later be adapted into a hybrid animated and live-action film in 1970, directed by Chuck Jones, Abe Levitow, and Dave Monahan. Juster wasn’t a fan of the film, saying that he didn’t think they did a good job. As of 2018, a remake of the project was in the works.
Juster continued to work as an architect, opening a firm in Massachusetts, but continued to write books for children, including The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, Stark Naked: A Paranomastic Odyssey, and most recently in 2011, Neville.