The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and classically illustrated by Jules Feiffer (1961) is a book for the clever reader. The book is full of wonderful wordplay, cliché, word stereotypes, and logic puzzles for a young child (and the adult!) to chuckle over and enjoy.
In the story, the young Milo is bored of school and of everything else in his life. He doesn’t want to play with his toys. He does want to learn anything. What’s the point of it all? As he ponders the existential meaning of his life, a gigantic magic tollbooth appears in his home, and he enters (why not? he doesn’t have anything better to do) a magically different world where words and numbers are very important, but meaning is tragically lacking. Using his wits and his courage, Milo, along with the help of a clever watchdog named Tock, comes to the rescue in finding meaning. I loved the emphasis on learning, the cleverness of the wordplay, and the delight that comes from the many colorful characters in his trip through Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. Milo becomes the hero of the everyman because he does the “impossible,” and who can’t help but love Tock the watchdog!
Both the book and the movie (1969) are fantastic. Raisin and I decided to watch the movie for our family movie night last week, and we had lots of fun. Raisin (age four) was laughing and smiling through most of the movie. After he went to sleep that night, I read the book in one sitting, and I likewise found myself laughing and smiling throughout. The book, of course, has much more detail that the movie misses, and most of the wordplay does not transfer as well to the screen. This is part of why I watched it with Raisin but decided not to read it aloud to him this year; he hasn’t had much patience lately for chapter length books, and this is a particularly cerebral one, even though it is tons of fun as well.
For example of the thoughtful messages underscoring the novel, take this conversation between the princesses Rhyme and Reason and Milo.
“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”
“But there is so much to learn,” he said, with a thoughtful frown.
“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.” (page 121)
When I got to that passage in the book, I decided this is a favorite book that I must reread much more frequently. I love how well Juster described the entire point of Milo journey there: I love how he captures the “rhyme and reason” of life. It’s not just about learning, but life is about learning why we’re learning and what to do with it. Certainly, that’s a lesson for any school-bored child to appreciate.
I can’t wait to bring novel of The Phantom Tollbooth to Raisin when he is a little bit older (and when he’d appreciate it the most). I must admit, however, that while I know I watched the movie regularly as a child, many parts of the book were unfamiliar in the same way. I may have been one the guilty ones who watched the movie more often than I read the book! (Although I know I did read the book.)
Because this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the first publication of The Phantom Tollbooth, I feel it has had a strong presence in the blogosphere lately. Nevertheless, this presence encouraged me to pick it up, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a fine example of nonsense literature, in a similar vein to that of Lewis Carroll, and I loved the playful tone and clever story.