Our copy of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is a slightly dog-eared, second-hand paperback. And it’s been sitting idle in the bookcase for years. The last time I had taken out was a few years back, as a read-aloud for the girls. They lasted less than a chapter! Where was the character development, they wanted to know, where was the emotion ?
It’s true that Milo, hero of the story, is not a particularly rounded character. A school boy who is bored with what his middle class life and education has to offer, his perspective is transformed by a trip, through the Tollbooth into the Kingdom of Wisdom, which is malfunctioning due to the banishment of Princesses Rhyme and Reason. Standard quest ensues.
What this classic, now in its 50th year, has to offer is something both anarchic and structured; a world, characters and situations existing as puns, as word and number play, as cliché turned inside out and proverb upside down.
In short, it’s a game of a book and I probably shouldn’t be surprised that Yoshi, lover of all things games, has voted this as his favourite book over the past few months.
From the Spelling Bee ( yes, of the stripy variety ) to the Watchdog ( yep, he has the body of a clock ) to the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis whose magic wand is an eraser-tipped pencil and who serves Milo and his friends subtraction stew – We eat when we’re full – there is enough inventiveness and cleverness to keep the reader absorbed and anticipating the humour to come.
Of course, as in most children’s tales, Milo is not allowed to simply romp through this land. There is, after all, a moral at the end…
And, in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, 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 some day make real…
A moral, however, that is brimming with such delight, it’s definitely forgivable.
What the trip through the Phantom Tollbooth awakens in Milo is a sense of the fabulousness of the world, and of his own, thinking mind.
Perfect for the reader who delights in games, in word play, in inversions and imagination.