As I mentioned two weeks ago, for every Battle of the Books, the Children’s Librarians at my work get to pick 10 titles to read. They have to be from a variety of genres, but one of them has to be a classic. For this year, we decided on The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, who passed away one year ago tomorrow. I can absolutely see why; it’s wonderfully silly and absurd with an important message of applying what we learn.
The Phantom Tollbooth revolves around Milo – a bored kid – and his adventures in the Lands Beyond. After coming home from school one day feeling disinterested, Milo discovers a mysterious tollbooth that appears in his room. With nothing better to do, he drives through. While there, he encounters many places in the Lands Beyond like the Kingdom of Wisdom and the Island of Conclusions, meets various characters like a literal Watchdog, and embarks on a quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason. During his travels, Milo realizes that life is exciting and beyond his wildest dreams.
Unsurprisingly, The Phantom Tollbooth gets compared to Alice in Wonderland a lot, and it’s not hard to see why. Both have bored protagonists that encounter strange and unique worlds. Those environments are laced with absurd logic that the characters have to deal with, and both come across danger frequently. However, there are some crucial differences. For starters, Alice is on her own for her journey, while Milo has two companions – the Watchdog and the Humbug – for most of his quest. Also, the latter learns from his experiences, yet it’s not entirely clear if the former does. Finally and most importantly, what happens with Milo is real, while it’s all a dream for Alice. It also turns out that Juster never read Alice in Wonderland.
It’s clear that he wanted to do the whole person-goes-to-a-whole-new-world troupe, but in a special kind of way, and it works. At first glance, the Lands Beyond is the typical absurdist realm with logic that vastly differs from the real world. However, when one examines it a little closer, it’s one that’s filled with puns, lots of them! For example, in order to get to the Island of Conclusions, one has to jump. Also, one minor character is a bee that spells everything. On the other hand, since the book was published in 1961, there might be some puns that might fly over people’s heads. For instance, when the main characters are running away from the demons in the Mountains of Ignorance, one of the monsters is horned and named Dilemma. Some people might not know the phrase “on the horn of a dilemma.”
Luckily, readers are given a break from the puns every now and then. It’s not like some of the parody fantasy books, where they go overboard on them. This is especially true with the maps (I’m looking at you Kill the Farmboy!).
Moreover, in a handful of fantasy books, if the world is absurdist or contains a lot of anti-logic, it’s that way for the sake of it. In the case of The Phantom Tollbooth, there’s a legitimate reason why it’s that way. The princesses Rhyme and Reason have been locked away by two bickering brothers who rule their own kingdoms. As such, the citizens in the Lands Beyond act more like characters in a Marx Brothers film than in the normal world. It’s up to Milo, the Watchdog, and the Humbug to rescue them.
The illustrations are a wonderful addition to the story. The map has just the right amount of detail. It shows where certain places are as well as the terrain. Furthermore, the map looks like it was illustrated in the 1700s, which adds to how important the Lands Beyond see themselves, especially since it’s all done in pencil. The rest of the illustrations are well done. Milo is depicted as a typical white boy, while the sillier characters are drawn in the ways that the author describes. At one point, Juster tries to describe a monster to the readers, but since he lacks the articulation at that moment, he basically tells them to see it for themselves.
Now, we must talk about the characters. Milo is a bit bland because he stands in for every kid who felt bored at school. He isn’t much different from other protagonists who are transported to other worlds like Alice and Dorothy. The stand out characters are the ones that Milo comes across on his journey. These include the Humbug, a bug who’s arrogant and foolish and likes to use big words for the sake of loquacity; the kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, who are the brothers that bicker and argue about their superior mode of communication; and the person who’s tall to short people and short to tall ones. They all have their one defining character trait, yet they’re all effectively silly in their own distinctive ways.
The one final thing that I want to mention is the messages. Normally, when these occur in children’s media, they tend to hit their viewers over the head repeatedly, but they can come off as shallow and even condescending if not executed properly. The Phantom Tollbooth has various messages, yet Juster integrates them into the story so fluidly that some might not realize that they’ve come across one. The whole plot revolves around applying the things that we learn. At first, Milo is bored with education because he doesn’t know what to do with the stuff he’s taught. Once he goes through the tollbooth and experiences in the Lands Beyond, he discovers that there are other ways to learn beyond the school setting. This quote hammers in that point: “But it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what you do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters” (p. 233).
Now to jump to my conclusion, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is a wonderful classic kids’ book. It’s very silly, and it contains a profound message about learning and experiencing all of the senses. I’d recommend it to both adults as well as kids, especially to those who love fantasy, absurdist worlds, and puns. Now, if you all will excuse me, a tollbooth just showed up at my place, and I’m going to explore it. Bye!
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