Oh, this strange, wonderful, wise book. Every month, I’m writing a love letter to a book that has shaped me, and this month, it’s The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
For those poor souls who haven’t yet read this classic, it’s the story of Milo, who comes home from school one day to find a tollbooth addressed to him. He drives his toy car through it and enters the magical Kingdom of Reason, where he discovers two warring kings, Azaz the Unabridged, who believes words matter more than numbers, and his brother, the Mathemagician, who is equally certain that numbers are more important than words. Milo embarks on a quest to reunite the kings and save the land by rescuing the twin sisters of the kings, Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason, who have been exiled to the Castle in the Air. Joining him on the journey are Tock, a dog whose belly is a huge watch, and the Humbug, a gruff and self-important beetle.
The language is absurd and delicious. Juster excels at word play and puns, and each sentence can be unpacked for layers of meaning and added delight. Here are a few gems:
“Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it’s quite rusty.”
“If something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open, but if it isn’t there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed. That’s why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones.”
You want to linger over each sentence, but Juster pulls you along with Milo and his crew to the next adventure, which is bound to be even more fantastic and silly than the last.
Hidden in amongst the bizarre and the playful, though, are some real nuggets of wisdom. For instance, Milo learns on his journey that one can easily jump to the island of Conclusions, but the only way out is a long, hard swim through the Sea of Knowledge.
When Milo finally makes it to the princesses, he laments, “[W]e would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes. I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”
Princess Reason responds, “You must never feel badly about making mistakes…as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”
I recently read The Phantom Tollbooth to my nine-year-old. I was pleased to find that as an adult I felt the same delight I had as a child, luxuriating in Juster’s language. My son’s guffaws made clear that this book, now more than fifty years old, holds up well.
More surprising, though, was to realize how much the book had shaped me. The Phantom Tollbooth introduced me, a devoted rule-following kid, to the joys of a journey with lots of side trips and missteps, and to playing around with language just because it is fun to do so. It is a lesson I am still learning.
I also believe that it is due to The Phantom Tollbooth that I view the greatest and most moral of skills to be the fair and peaceful resolution of disputes. As a child, I wanted nothing so much as to be the lovely, kind, just, and intelligent princesses. I think I became a lawyer because of them.
I still feel a catch in my heart at their description: “They were dressed all in white and were beautiful beyond compare. One was grave and quiet, with a look of warm understanding in her eyes, and the other seemed gay and joyful.” Rhyme’s laugh was “as friendly as the mailman’s ring when you know there’s a letter for you.”
Wouldn’t you want to be them? Don’t you?
And while I know that I will never achieve their heights of calm wisdom and lighthearted reassurance, this book taught me that it is worthwhile to strive for those things. It taught me that reason and compassion can save almost anything.
So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.
Kate Hillyer loves reading aloud, mostly because of the guffaws. She writes middle grade stories about brave girls who fight for the things they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. You can find her online at www.katehillyer.com and on Twitter as @SuperKate. She also has a book blog, www.kidbooklist.com, and lucky dog, she gets to be a Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse.