Today’s throwback comes from way way back—1961, to be exact. The Phantom Tollbooth is an acclaimed children’s book by Norton Juster, and I only vaguely remember reading it when I was a kid. But I do remember that I liked it. I think it’s possible I was in kindergarten? I know that my teacher at the time had a bunch of books in a box in the classroom, and I picked things to read based on how cool the cover was. On The Phantom Tollbooth‘s cover there’s generally a boy and a large dog, and though I’m a cat person till I die, the dog made the greatest impression on tiny me. For a while there all I really wanted a giant watchdog named Tock who would talk to me. The rest of the story seemed to be just a fantastical adventure, and it wasn’t until rereading it recently that I realized there was more to it than “boy goes on adventure”.
Our protagonist, Milo, is a kid who doesn’t see the point of going to school, and like many such kids in such stories, ends up discovering a magical adventure in his own room at home. He finds a package he’s never seen before, and since he has nothing else he wants to do, he unwraps it and sets up a little tollbooth, which comes with a road map and a rulebook. The instructions say to hold a destination in his mind and go through the tollbooth, and though Milo thinks it’s dumb, he dutifully looks through the map, picks a place, and goes.
Many children in many books go on magical adventures in other worlds, but Milo’s is a little different than theirs. After meeting the aforementioned Tock the watchdog, who berates Milo for “killing time”, boy and dog arrive in Dictionopolis, a city ruled by King Azaz, who only cares about words. Milo, who never cared about spelling or synonyms or even watching what he said, suddenly finds that words can look different and intriguing, words can be used to confuse and to educate, and if he isn’t careful with what he says, he’ll have to literally eat his words. After this, Milo makes his way to Digitopolis, a city ruled by the Mathemagician, who only cares about numbers. The Mathemagician enthusiastically introduces Milo to his home, but Milo quickly gets confused by things like subtraction soup, which only makes him hungrier, and ends up traveling up a limitless staircase and talking to .58, who teaches him about averages. In short, Milo’s journey doesn’t teach him how to be brave or be “the chosen one”, he learns that learning can be both fun and meaningful, and that’s quite different from the message we normally get.
The book isn’t just a fable like “look kids! numbers can be cool!”, however. As Milo, Tock, and the Humbug travel to the Castle in the Air to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason, they’re chased by malevolent demons like the Overbearing Know-it-all, the Threadbare Excuse, and the Gorgons of Hate and Malice. I especially like the Gross Exaggeration, described as a thing “whose grotesque features and thoroughly unpleasant manners were hideous to see, and whose rows of wicked teeth were made only to mangle the truth.” (Sounds a lot like a certain 2016 U.S. presidential candidate.) It’s not only that learning can be fun, something Milo didn’t learn in school—it’s that learning can be important, and proudly declaring one’s ignorance is a silly idea at best and a dangerous idea at worst. And unlike other fantastical books who leave their protagonists despondent at the thought of living once more in the real world, The Phantom Tollbooth ends with Milo realizing that he doesn’t need to take another adventure with the tollbooth, not when there are so many interesting things about his own world that he has yet to discover.
Rediscovering The Phantom Tollbooth as an adult is like reading a whole new book. The prose and the wordplay are extremely clever, and I definitely didn’t pick up on all of these nuances as a kid—now the humor in Milo eating his words and talking to an average makes sense to me, and I can appreciate the way Juster named his people and the places on his map. Moreover, the world of The Phantom Tollbooth is just a pleasure to see again, especially in 2016—as the late acclaimed children’s author Maurice Sendak says in his foreword to this book, “Juster’s allegorical monsters have become all too real.” It’s nice to think that we too can go on a journey to restore the princesses Rhyme and Reason to power—for the book tells Milo that “many other boys and girls are waiting to use [the tollbooth], too.” If you haven’t read The Phantom Tollbooth, or haven’t revisited it in a while, I’d definitely recommend it for a rainy afternoon.