The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster, Yearling, 1961, 256 pp
THE SUNDAY FAMILY READ
(posted on Monday, somehow Sunday got away from me)
Though this fantasy classic was published in 1961 and meant for children, by 1961 I was starting high school. Trying to wend my way through boys, popular girls, and Latin class; trying desperately and hopelessly to shed my nerdy image, I was mostly reading Seventeen magazine. In fact, I had never heard of The Phantom Tollbooth until I read Lev Grossman's The Magicians a few years ago.
When I worked at Once Upon A Time Bookstore, I would restock the Yearling paperback reissue on the shelf almost weekly it seemed and be drawn to the intense blue cover and the dog with a clock embedded in his side. Finally it came up on the 1961 list of My Big Fat Reading Project and I read it.
Lev Grossman has talked in interviews about his fascination with portals. The phantom tollbooth is a portal, like the wardrobe, the fractional train platform, and the amulet. But the book itself is riddled with something I love even more than portals: words, word play, plays on words.
Milo, the hero, is a bored and lazy boy who finds most things a waste of time, the process of seeking knowledge being the greatest. Once Milo passes through the tollbooth, driving a little sort of Smart car, he travels over the Foothills of Confusion to the city of Dictionopolis, acquires Tock the ticking watch dog, takes on a quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Mountains of Ignorance and becomes a literate person.
I would have loved this book in 6th grade. Alas it was published two years later. Reading it now, I had no fond memories to look back on and its "lessons" were too obvious for me. I would have giggled about jumping to the Island of Conclusions, encountering the Gross Exaggeration, and the Threadbare Excuse.
The saddest thing of all is thinking about what children to whom I could recommend The Phantom Tollbooth today. Except for the most nerdy middle grade bookworms with advanced vocabularies, I fear it would just go over the heads of most contemporary children.
(The Phantom Tollbooth is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in hardcover and ebook by order.)