This is a transcript of Recommended Season 3 Episode 12.
AD READ: We That Are Young by Preti Taneja
This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week, Jane Mount picks The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Oyinkan Braithwaite talks Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Jane Mount is an illustrator, designer, and founder of Ideal Bookshelf, a company that makes things for people who love books. She lives on Maui, in Hawaii. Her latest book, Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany brings literary people, places, and things to life through her signature and vibrant illustrations.
I think I probably read the Phantom Tollbooth when I was around nine. Um, and I actually had a really excellent summer that year because, um … So, I was a very shy, dorky kid. You know, not very outgoing. And, my dad was an architect. And, his studio was right by our local public library. Um, and I somehow convinced him that summer, um, my mom did not know, but I convinced him, instead of taking me to daycare to drop me off at the library every morning. And then, he would go to his studio, and then pick me up, and we’d go have lunch. And then, take me back to the library.
And, I just sat in the kid’s department and read a book in the morning, and a book in the afternoon.
(laughs) It was the best summer ever. (laughs) Um, and I think that’s the summer probably when I first read the Phantom Tollbooth
The Phantom Tollbooth really kind of opened my eyes to the idea that I was bored because I chose to be. And, that you can choose not to be bored. And, that’s all it takes. And, once you choose not to be bored, and see the world as a place that, uh, is exciting, and you can learn stuff all the time from everywhere, it’s completely life changing. So, I think that is really what it left me with. I don’t … You know, I don’t have specific memory- sitting and reading it, but I was definitely branded by it. (laughs)
Well, it’s a story of a boy on a journey to a magical world which, you know, is pretty much a very popular story still today in all different formats. You know, and he gets to make this journey into a whole land where everything is different from how he thought. And, he has to figure things out, and um, solve puzzles, and finish a task. When he does, he is in a sense rewarded. It’s a story that’s hard not to like.
It’s the classic story, but this one is told in a way that’s great especially, I think, for kids who don’t quite feel at home in their surroundings. It’s sort of, um, you know … It’s- it, uh, makes you feel not only is the whole world more magical, but that as a … as a clever nerdy kid, there is for sure a place for you in it. (laughs)
Well, I think Milo, the main character is, very relatable, and I think also Tuck who is the watch dog, he is actually a dog with a clock set into his sides. There’s a lot of, you know, there’s a lot of puns, a lot of word play. A lot of math, some spelling. Things to figure out. I know … that makes it sound, in a way, more boring, but I promise you it’s the opposite of that.
So, and I think this book showed me that actually it’s great to be smart. It’s great to learn stuff. And, the more you learn, you know, the better the wo- you are, and the better the world is. So, I think that’s really what I got from the book. And, I think all different characters he meets along … Milo meets along the way on his journey, uh, teach him that in different ways.
I have reread some other books that I loved as a kid, and they definitely did not hold up. But, this one still really held up for me,
To be honest, I put off rereading it for a long time ’cause I was scared … (laughs) … of it. It would not. But, it totally did. I still think it’s really one of the best books ever.
Milo the main character in the illustrations is not most attractive kid, to be honest, the way he’s drawn. But, somehow, he perfectly comes across. I mean, it’s just really the perfect way to draw him.
I could not imagine him looking any other way, actually, besides how he looks in the drawings. So, I think it … I’ve read about, actually, the making of the book, and Norton Juster, the writer, um, had a grant to write a book about cities for kids. He was an architect, and he had a grant to write a book about cities for kids. And, he kept trying to write it, and got really bored with the topic, and so ended up writing this book instead.
And he lived at the time in a house, uh, in Brooklyn with roommates, and one of the roommates was, uh, Jules Feiffer, the illustrator. And, when they were talking about the book, Feiffer offered, you know, talked about doing the illustrations. And so, apparently, it was quite a partnership, and they went back and forth a lot, and Jules Feiffer wasn’t sure he could draw the scenes that needed to be drawn. But, they pushed and pushed, and finally got it all done. And, it really seems like quite a collaborative effort that I think worked out perfectly well.
I never knew that until just around the anniversary a few years ago. I never realized that he … That Juster was an architect. In a way, One of the things I love most about the book is that it says that, “All of these things are just as valid as each other.” That, If you’re good at math, great. If you’re good at writing, great. If you’re at drawing, great. And, if you’re good at all of them, even better. I liked the idea that it’s okay to be interested in and good at a bunch of things. And that you don’t have to specialize too much.
One thing that I think is great is that it’s … it’s a great book for smart kids to read because there’s a lot of little clever word play, and clever tricks in the ways he names things, and talks things. And, as you read the book, and you figure them out, it makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something. Greatness. You feel clever. It’s sort of like these days, some of my favorite recent books are, I would say like, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, or Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
And, in some ways, this is the kid’s version of those, and you figure things out along the way. And, it makes you feel smarter as you learn to actually read the book. Do you know what I mean?
Thanks again to Jane Mount for joining us and recommending The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. You can find her book, Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany, published by Chronicle Books, wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at janemount.
AD READ: Aquicorn Cove, the new graphic novel by Katie O’Neill
Oyinkan Braithwaite is a graduate of Creative Writing and Law from Kingston University, who lives in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2014, she was shortlisted as a top-ten spoken-word artist in the Eko Poetry Slam, and in 2016 she was a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her debut My Sister, The Serial Killer is a darkly funny novel about a Nigerian woman whose younger sister has a very inconvenient habit of killing her boyfriends.
My name’s Oyinkan Braithwaite….I went with my favorite book in the whole wide world, uh which is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
When I was 11 um I went to boarding school in Nigeria for a year. I was, I was living in England at the time and I went to boarding school in Nigeria for a year and I know I already had this book because I took it with me-
And then I lost it and then we had to buy it again. Um, so I know I, I bought this book at least three times um … You know, and I actually don’t even like the edition I have now because it says it contains 100 percent recycled paper and no offense to recycled paper but it’s not very pretty.
It’s a weird thing where I’m like, every time I go to the scenes for me that are the most epic- They’ve remained, you know. They still move me in the way that they did when I was a child, so I don’t know what that has to say for my emotional development, um, but … Yeah. I-I kind of love it, the way I-I always did.
I-I’ve noticed this recently that people, um some people consider it to be a gothic kind of dark novel. You know, maybe um in the same sort of genre as um um Wuthering Heights. But I … I don’t think I realized that until recently. I kinda just thought it was a normal sort of romance, which um, which, again, I think says a lot about my psyche. But um, I didn’t really think it was very dark.
And I just thought it was so beautiful. I fell in love with the character which I think it’s interesting. Um, there are a couple things about Jane Eyre that I, I think Jane Eyre is timeless. For me Jane Eyre is a timeless um novel like, I don’t … It doesn’t feel to me like something that was written, you know, a really, really long time ago.
It’s a-it feels um very present. Jane Eyre is um, a woman who I think is very strong. And I like the fact that she’s the main character but she isn’t beautiful, which I think for books of this nature, like if you compare it to other um books, you know, like the Jane Austen books or-
Uh, you know, there’s a, there’s a lot of emphasis on how beautiful, you know, if you look at Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens, like all the the women tend to be beautiful. And I think generally in literature, like when women are at the for-at the forefront of the um-
Of the novel, they are very attractive, which Jane Eyre just isn’t.
And yet it, usually that sort of thing would make me, maybe alienate the reader ’cause you already know they’re not an attractive person on the outside anyway, but it doesn’t do that at all. If anything it draws us closer to her.
And her plight and the things she goes through, so she’s the one who’s not, you know, who’s plain and who’s poor and who doesn’t have a lot of family and doesn’t have a lot of friends and yet you’re still drawn to her. You’re her friend.
You take that place of her family, her friends. You become her friend, and you-you want to cheer her on and you want the very best for her.
Um, so, you know, I became very attached to Jane Eyre and-and her plight. And, um, I think, again, I feel like I’ve seen people sort of consider her to be a weak character in terms of her personality, um, which I wholly disagree with.
There’s the scene where um, you know, after she’s been about to marry Mr. Rochester and um he, and she discovers that he already has a wife, um, and she’s um, she’s having to deal with this … And, you know, this was, this is someone who has not had a lot of love shown to her in her, in her life.
Who’s been very poor and this man who’s filthy rich, who lives her to bits, you know, begs her to stay and he’s, he’s bargaining with her, trying to figure out a way for her to stay. Like, okay, even if you can’t stay with my wi … as my wife just stay.
And to be honest, I feel like in modern times, in the day we are in now, you know, despite how strong a lot of us consider ourselves to be … I- I know most would fold under that kind of- those kind of circumstances, because at the end of the day what do you have? Like what do you have to … If you leave where you are right now, where you’ve got security and you have love. It’s not like you just have security. You have the security. You have the love, you know. Um Jane Eyre didn’t have anything else so the fact that she was able to walk away from him.
She walked away from him um, the way she came. She-she, the way she met him. Penniless. So she almost um, by virtue of her decision she almost dies. She almost starves to death because she literally didn’t have anywhere to go.
And she didn’t have any money. And I think to be able to make that choice based on your morals and your principles alone is strength. Is … is spectacular strength.
She had a very strong faith. I knew there’s a point where she’s talking to him ’cause it was a long, you know, this guy weeps. And um, you know, well, he did. He weeped, he wept … oh, he weeped. He wept, he wept and he um, he, you know, and at some point she’s like, he’s like, okay, you know what.
Just stay. Stay the way you are now. Stay as the g-as the governess. You know, I’m not gonna demand anything from you. I’ll, you, you’ll barely even see me. Just stay.
And she’s like, you know what? You say that now but, you know, having me around … she was like, she w-she didn’t compromise at all. She’s like, look. I unders-I’m gonna, you’re going to tempt me. Um, just, and they want, she didn’t even mean, you know, technically, she wasn’t talking sex or anything, because these were different times.
She just meant, you know, you’re gonna tempt me to want, to want to be with you. So long as you see me, so long as I’m there. She didn’t compromise. She-she-she cut him off completely-
She cut herself off ’cause obviously he’s not the one that left. It was his home. She cut herself … The people who she had come to love in that environment, she wasn’t able to say bye to anyone. She cut herself off completely, left with nothing.
This is what I’m saying about how I feel like it’s timeless. Because it’s really worth to make it a modern story and we were to say, oh, you know, uh, this girl, you know, is an orphan. Has no parents. She was abused by her family. Um. She was tossed out. She was, you know, she suffered all this kind of trauma and then she meets this guy who’s … It’s like, okay, it’s-it’s like a Fifty Shades of Gray but with trauma. So she meets this guy who got ridiculous money. You know, he’s flying her here, flying her there. Um, he’s, you know, he-he gen, but without, again, without even the madness of the 50 Shades of Gray guy. Like, with this one, the guy’s got his head, you know, he’s not demanding weird things from her.
You know, he just wants to love her. He just wants to be with her. And then she finds out that he’s married, but, the wife isn’t … It’s not that he’s a cheat but the wife is violent and is trying to kill her husband.
It wasn’t as if it was just some wife that he just put, you know, in the corner. But this is a woman who he was tricked into marrying, who is, who has completely lost her head. Who is constantly trying to kill him, who, in-in today’s world, would probably be in some psych ward somewhere.
So it’s that sort of situation where, it’s like okay, but Jane, like, he’s not a bad guy.
You can, surely you can overlook this little head call that you’ve got going on.
So, I really, I think for-for her, and it was really a matter of faith for her, because he was married, he was married.
The thing is it’s that weird thing where I think a lot of us in life kind of have to decide where to draw the line, what, because sometimes it’s not clear.
It’s really not clear all the time. You know, sometimes it’s not a black or white situation where you can say, okay, this person is a bad person and this person, what they’ve done is wrong.
So to be able to, like you said, so to be able to make that kind of really harsh decision, and you know this decision is gonna affect you. It-it’s gonna affect you more than it’s gonna affect the person you are cutting off.
It’s pretty impressive.
Thanks again to Oyinkan Braithwaite for joining us and recommending Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Her novel My Sister the Serial Killer, published by Doubleday, is now available wherever books are sold.
Thanks for joining us for Recommended Season 3! We’ll be back in February with Season 4; until then, you can listen to all three seasons at any time in the podcatcher of your choice.
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