Norton Juster was an architect by training and worked as a professor of design at Hampshire College in his native England. When he published The Phantom Tollbooth in 1961 it was an instant classic. Critics in the New York Times and Life Magazine likened the book to Lewis Carroll's famous Alice in Wonderland, which previously stood alone as the best-known fantasy novel in the English language.
The Phantom Tollbooth is, in a sense, a modern take on Carroll's famous work, which was published in 1865, and an adaptation of some of its key themes. England of the 1960s was in a period of furious progress as a country known for its history pressed toward an uncertain future in the twentieth century. In this time, books of the Victorian era of literature such as Alice in Wonderland began to lose their appeal to younger readers who were alienated by their older language and dated references. The Phantom Tollbooth gave these readers an opportunity to enjoy a novel of fantasy to which they could more easily relate.
The fantasy novel remains an important genre of fiction as it is uniquely well suited to audiences of all ages. It is often used to teach lessons about life through symbolic interactions. The best-known examples of this are stories such as Grimm's Fairy Tales or Aesop's Fables. The fantasy novel is a longer, more refined, and more adult take on these sorts of stories. The elements of magic help fantasy novels appeal to younger readers while the more mature plot construction and language draw in older readers.
In writing a modern version of the fantasy novel, Juster attempted to update the themes to make them more pertinent to the twentieth century. The Phantom Tollbooth tackles issues that simply did not exist in Carroll's time. Characters in Juster's book grapple with issues relating to life in cities (such as noise), the boredom bred by instant entertainment, and the laziness of students in modern schools. At the same time, the book also incorporates some of Carroll's ideas about creativity and imagination.
Juster never wrote another book, but The Phantom Tollbooth has never gone out of print and remains a favorite among readers of all ages.