Sep 2, 2010

The Phantom Tollbooth

I love to rave about things. Call me Ms. Hyperbole. So how can I not rave about the best children's book I've read this year? Now officially one of my favorite books, ever. As I child, I was mesmerized by Alice in Wonderland and thought no book could be more magical and wonderfully weird. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had a similar effect on me. Then comes adulthood, when I fall smack down in love with this piece of literary whimsy...

Published in 1961 and hailed as a children's classic, I read The Phantom Tollbooth just last Sunday... thanks to my kids whose library I regularly refresh with new titles.

Norton Juster, God bless you and your magical way with puns, word play and layered meanings! And the way Juster paints pictures with words? Breathtaking in their absurdity, elegant in their simplicity. Imagining Dictionopolis, The Mountains of Ignorance, The Valley of Sound, The Sea of Knowledge and jumping to The Isle of Conclusions is better than any 3D movie experience. No 3D glasses required kids, just fire up those neurons in your head!

You have to read the book and meet The Everpresent Wordsnatcher. His job is "to take words right out of your mouth." When the young protagonist Milo asks him, "Is everyone who lives in Ignorance like you?" He says, the others are "much worse" then explains that he actually lives in "a place very far away called Context." Don't even suggest that he go back home, as The Wordsnatcher thinks Context is... "such an unpleasant place that I spend almost all my time out of it."

Then there's Faintly Macabre who Milo thought was a Witch, but is actually a not-so-wicked Which whose talent is choosing which words to be used for all occasions.

Only in this land beyond The Phantom Tollbooth will you find the cart without an engine or anything to pull it. When you ride it you just have to be silent as... "it goes without saying."

And if one day we may have to explain the concept of Infinity to a child, we could learn a thing or two from The Mathemagician.

I will stop enumerating my favorite parts of The Phantom Tollbooth, as there is something wonderful to be found in every page, all 255 of them. Juster created such a rich candy land of words, but there is more to it than the word-candy and the enthralling plot to save Princesses Rhyme and Reason.

The Phantom Tollbooth is a Philosophy Book written as satire. Really, it is. It's about the wonderful though often arduous journey we all have to take to find wisdom. There are lessons to be learned here, but Juster also shows great empathy and obviously remembers what it's like to be a child. He is no condescending adult talking down to the little ones.

Milo, who has plenty of time.

Juster's young hero starts off in the grips of typical school boy ennui. Milo's first words in the book: "It seems to me everything is a waste of time... I can't see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February." The book goes on: "And since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all."

Then things start to change when The Phantom Tollbooth mysteriously appears in Milo's bedroom. It is a children's book, so expect the happy ending. I promise I didn't spoil it for you. The journey to that happy ending is what really matters. And oh what a journey it is!


Barni said...

Really want to read it now. Assign YA-lit next time. :)

Nona said...

It's a wonderful, wonderful book... FYI, Juster said he does not like the movie/animated version. I am now looking for his other book, A Dot and a Line -- some sort of meditation on geometry and numbers. He's primarily an architect and a professor, btw. In the 50s, he got a grant from The Ford Foundation to write a children's book about urban perception or how people experience cities. For fun and a little diversion, he'd write notes that eventually ended up as The Phantom Tollbooth. The urban perception book was never written! Nevertheless, he's brilliant!!! And probably a lot like the distractible Milo : )

tashie's mommy said...

I MUST have this! :)

Nona said...

Hello B! You must, you must. The vocabulary is beyond our kids age... and yet... you must hope one day the magic will hit them.