Friday, August 19, 2022

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Title: The Phantom Tollbooth
Author: Norman Juster
Illustrator: Jules Pfeiffer
Publication: Yearling, paperback, originally published in 1961
Genre: Juvenile fantasy
Description: Milo is a boy who is bored by everything in his life, until a mysterious package appears in his room. It contains a turnpike tollbooth that he quickly assembles. Jumping into an electric automobile, he picks a spot on the map that was also in the package, and sets off for Dictionopolis. As Milo travels, he enters a world of words and numbers, filled with quirky characters whose wordsmithing keeps him in a constant state of surprise. He also makes friends, Tock the Dog and the Humbug, whose help he needs for a quest to rescue the lost princesses, Rhyme and Reason, and restore order in the country.

My Impression: I remember seeing The Phantom Tollbooth in my elementary school library when I was in fourth grade but the word “phantom” made me think it was some kind of horror novel (how did I even know such a genre existed?) so I averted my eyes. After several months, my curiosity outweighed my apprehension and I pulled it down from the shelf and started reading. I went on reading as I walked home, trying not to trip, and finished it that night. I loved the puns and homonyms and other wordplay – an adult reader probably notices more but I found plenty to enjoy. In 2013, it was one of the books promoted via World Book Day, and somehow I was given a dozen copies to put in the hands of strangers to inspire reading, which was fun. Sometimes, I run into people who have named their children or pets “Milo” and I can say wisely, “Ah, a fan of The Phantom Tollbooth!” and they either look pleased or surprised or both. 

I have always liked the way Milo becomes more inventive during his adventures. One of my favorite parts is where he is sent to retrieve a sound from the fortress of the Soundkeeper. He is entranced by laughter that turns into bubbles and clapping that causes cascades of paper to flutter to the floor. He is worried about how to smuggle out a word and then cleverly manages to trap a “but” on the tip of his tongue and escapes, so it can be used to fuel a canon.

The collaboration of Juster and Pfeiffer came about because they both had apartments in the same Brooklyn brownstone and became friendly. Pfeiffer, a cartoonist, thought the text was brilliant and agreed to illustrate the book but was apparently set in his ways:
“There are a lot of things Jules doesn’t like to draw or can’t,” Juster says. “Either he thinks he can’t—or he just doesn’t want to do it. When we were working on The Phantom Tollbooth, one of the things I wanted to do was maps. Feiffer could not or would not draw a map. So I drew the map, and he put a piece of tracing paper over it and did it in his line.”
Apparently, some of the early readers of the book warned Juster that the vocabulary was too advanced for children. Don’t they realize that is how children acquire vocabulary?

My edition includes an “appreciation” by Maurice Sendak written in 1996. I have been around publishing long enough to be skeptical that he actually wrote it but it is full of interesting commentary. He says, “The dumbing down of America is proceeding apace. Juster’s allegorical monsters have become all too real. . . . We need Milo . . . and his endearing buddies” to restore Rhyme and Reason to us.”   Well, as we despair of the willful ignorance of half of this country (not to mention their fear of books and knowledge), I am reminded of my Latin teacher’s frequent comment, “Nihil novi sub sole,” -- there is nothing new under the sun.

Moral lessons: Like Edward Eager’s characters, I am not a fan of books with a moral lesson. However, I can’t disagree with this one: that Milo’s boredom was cured by adventure and learning, and on the last page he realizes:
And, in that very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know – music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real. His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new – and worth trying.
Hard to argue with any of that! As I observed to Ms. Yingling today, there are no lame books, just lame people. This book was the August selection of the de Grummond Collection Book Group. I was surprised that the lone male in the group did not care for the book. He said it was too much like Alice in Wonderland and found the humor forced. I could see the Alice comparison but I always found the book charming. As I was rereading it, I imagined that fans of Wordle would particularly enjoy it.
Source: Personal copy.  A final thought: do modern children even know what a tollbooth is?  Massachusetts eliminated toll booths in 2016 and transitioned to an all-electronic tolling system using transponders.


Davida Chazan (The Chocolate Lady) said...

I still have my copy from when I was a kid. Loved that book!

Lory said...

I didn't even know what a tollbooth was as a non-modern child reading the book -- growing up in the Pacific Northwest I had never seen one. However, that didn't stop me from loving the book! I think I did learn a ton of new vocabulary from it too. Context is everything ... if there's a memorable and sensible way to demonstrate what a word means, that's how you learn it. I will never forget what a "dodecahedron" is.