Monday, 10 October 2011

Close encounters with children's writers, part 4

I have been extensively quoted in The New Yorker. I am very proud of it. I would have been proud of being quoted in The New Yorker on any occasion, but I am honoured to be mentioned as Norton Juster's choice of comment on The Phantom Tollbooth. I am certainly in good company in this anniversaty edition - just look at the names mentioned as "esteemed authors, educators, and artists" (I guess I qualify as an educator for this occasion).

Norton has been a very good friend for many years now, which is a huge privilege, and the story of our friendship is worth telling. When I lived in Amherst, Massachussets, in 1993, I heard from my university colleagues, who knew I was one of those crazy child lit people, that Amherst was famous for its children's authors, and among the many great names there was Norton Juster. I had read The Phantom Tollbooth many years before, in Russia, and I had even tried to translate it. So I thought maybe I could try to meet the author. Amherst authors were easily approachable and appeared on many social and academic occasions, but I was told that Mr Juster was a bit of an hermit. He only lived three blocks from my university appartment, but after this warning, I really didn't want to hang outside his house. I wrote him a letter, explaining who I was and why I'd like to meet him. He phoned me very soon and invited me to come over to his place, "after dinner", a transparent hint about the brevity of the granted interview.

I went over, at about eight, and suddenly, as it sometimes happens, it was past midnight, and we hadn't yet told each other everything we had to tell, so Norton said: "Next time you must come for dinner". And I did, and at that dinner I also met Eric Carle, another local author; and I went over several times, for dinners and coffees and teas. When I was leaving, I called Norton to say goodbye, which made him really anxious. "You must come over one last time, he said, I must give you my special watermelon jam to take home!"

Since then, I have visited Norton several times in Amherst; we also met in San Diego when we lived there, and some years ago Norton and his wife Jeanne visited Stockholm. Staffan took them to see a famous 13th century church; Norton took a glance at it and said: "That's not 13th century". With authority - he is an architect. Although when they had walked around a bit, he had to admit that some parts of the church were indeed 13th century. Staffan's honour was saved.

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