Review: “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster
I’ll be spending this week talking about the books I read during last Saturday’s Readathon. I’ll be going in order from least favorite to most.
About the Book:
10-year-old Milo isn’t interested in anything at all. Life is boring, ho-hum. That is, until he comes home one day to find a mysterious package in his room. “ONE GENUINE TURNPIKE TOLLBOOTH,” reads the accompanying card. “EASILY ASSEMBLED AT HOME, AND FOR USE BY THOSE WHO HAVE NEVER TRAVELED IN LANDS BEYOND.” Confused, but having nothing better to do, Milo assembles the tollbooth (signs and all), hops into his small mechanical car, and drives through.
From the land of Expectations to the Doldrums, from the cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis to the Island of Conclusions (to which you must jump, of course), Milo travels through this new land. He learns that long ago, the kingdom of Wisdom flourished here, but that a feud between the ruling brothers–King Azaz of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis–resulted in the collapse of the kingdom and the banishment of the fair princesses, Rhyme and Reason. With Tock the watchdog and a Humbug as his companions, Milo sets sets off to rescue Rhyme and Reason and restore the kingdom of Wisdom to its former glory.
I never read this book as a child. I picked up a used copy a few months ago, and it looked like it would be a good Readathon book. It was! The Phantom Tollbooth is positively delightful. Having missed it as a child, I don’t have the deep-rooted attachment to it that comes from growing up with a book or movie, but I loved it anyway.
It is a whimsical fantasy story, so bursting with creativity and packed with wit that I hardly knew what to do with myself as I read it. Every character comes with a clever background and a snappy name, both of which hook into his purpose in the story. Every place has some point to make. Words get twisted, expectations get turned on their heads. While all of this allegory business could certainly have gotten old quickly, I had no such problems. On the contrary, I was delighted at every turn by the downright cleverness of it all.
For instance, there are the king’s five advisers: The Duke of Definition, The Minister of Meaning, The Earl of Essence, The Count of Connotation, and The Undersecretary of Understanding. They travel in a pack, stating the same thing five times in five different ways, thus demonstrating the variety and versatility of words available for use. Through their banter, Milo realizes how many words he’s been missing out on.
Would you care to read some samples of the silliness? Very well. Here Milo has just gotten into a wagon with the king’s advisers to attend a royal banquet in Dictionolpolis. Concerned about the wagon’s apparent lack of driving mechanism, Milo asks:
“How are you going to make it move? It doesn’t have a–”
“Be very quiet,” advised the duke, “for it goes without saying.”
And, sure enough, as soon as they were all quite still, it began to move quickly through the streets, and in a very short time they arrived at the royal palace.
Ha! I love it. Many of the wonderful conversations in The Phantom Tollbooth are far to long to post here, but rest assured that they are even more charming than the snippet above.
In short, The Phantom Tollbooth is a lot of fun. Anyone who enjoys light fantasy, likes words and language, or has a penchant for well-done allegory will no doubt be glad they spent a few hours breezing through this childhood classic.
Have you read The Phantom Tollbooth? Seen the movie? What about a similar book? Are there childhood classics you didn’t read until later in life?
Readathon books I’ve reviewed so far:
- A Most Improper Magick by Stephanie Burgis
- The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
- Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Cholenko (audiobook)
Still to come:
- Something Missing by Matthew Dicks