Dear The Phantom Tollbooth

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.

Favorite Quote:

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. 

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Dear Skellig

This is the second love letter in the series we’re doing about books that shaped us, as individuals and as writers. Last month, I wrote about a book that formed me as a person. This month, it’s the book that inspired me to write middle grade. I discovered Skellig, by David Almond, as an adult. I fell into it by accident, intrigued by its strange title and lovely cover. I finished it in two days, deciding almost immediately that it was the perfect book.

Skellig tells the story of a boy named Michael who moves into a new house and discovers, in the broken-down barn there, a grumpy, old, arthritic man who maybe has wings, is maybe an angel. Michael also has a baby sister who was born too early, and may not survive. “Sometimes I think she’s never quite left Heaven and never quite made it all the way here to Earth,” Michael’s mother says. “Maybe that’s why she has such trouble staying here.”

It was Skellig that taught me what contemporary fantasy can do in middle grade. It can use magic to illuminate and elucidate hard truths—the things that children know, intuitively, but do not have the language to express. I love middle grade because it is the cusp where magic is still not entirely impossible, but the harder aspects of reality are visible, as well. Middle grade contemporary fantasy mines this fleeting moment in life.

The story is gorgeously spare. I cannot tell you what any of the characters look like, except Skellig, vaguely. I am unsure where it takes place, though the use of “bloody” and “blinking” as curses tells me somewhere in Great Britain. The time period could be anything over about a century, post-automobile and pre-cell phone. There are no literary acrobats, no lingering descriptions or laugh lines. It is as hard to get my hands around as a dream. But, like a dream, the feeling it evokes lingers deep within.

This is the book that inspired me to write. In the comments, if you like, I would love to hear your inspirations.

Favorite Quote

“What are you?” I whispered.
He shrugged again.
“Something,” he said. “Something like you, something like a beast, something like a bird, something like an angel.” He laughed. “Something like that.”

Kate Hillyer continues to search for magic in the everyday. She writes middle grade stories about girls strong enough to save the things they love. You can find her at www.katehillyer.com and on Twitter as @SuperKate. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, and also has her own book blog at www.kidbooklist.com. 

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Dear Anne of Green Gables

Welcome to a brand new series on The Winged Pen!

Here, we write love letters to our favorite books—the ones that shaped us, as writers and as people.

First up is the book that inspired me to start this series: Anne of Green Gables!

In case you haven’t read it, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is the story of an orphan girl who, after being shipped to various abysmal foster homes, lands with an older couple (actually brother and sister) on an idyllic farm on Prince Edward Island.

I am an Anne girl. I get a glow just holding the book (especially the lovely edition from Puffin and Rifle Paper—yum!). My red-haired daughter is named Lucy, after Lucy Maud Montgomery.

There are a few things that made this book so influential to me.

First, Anne is not perfect. She tries really hard to be good, but she loses her temper, she messes things up royally, and she is given to fits of despair. I was a kid who worried all the time about doing the right thing, and seeing Anne’s horrid mistakes and tantrums gave me a gleeful thrill, and permission for my own imperfection. (Imperfection is good! I wrote a whole post on it.)

Second, L.M. Montgomery taught me about writing description. Here is how she describes the road to Anne’s new home, when Anne first sees it:

The “Avenue,” so called by the Newbridge people, was a stretch of road four or five hundred yards long, completely arched over with huge, wide-spreading apple-trees, planted years ago by an eccentric old farmer. Overhead was one long canopy of snowy fragrant bloom. Below the boughs the air was full of a purple twilight and far ahead a glimpse of painted sunset sky shone like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle.

Isn’t that lovely? Oh, it makes me sigh every time.

Montgomery elevates the scenery of her beloved home while also being so specific that I can picture it. I see it perfectly, and I feel the same awed reaction that Anne experiences in that moment. I strive in my own writing to make descriptions that not just make a place real, but make it magical and inspiring.

Finally, Anne loves with her whole heart. Her joy at her new home is palpable. She takes the time to feel every moment and savor it. She doesn’t dwell on her unhappy background, but she is constantly amazed at her good fortune to end up in a place so enchanting. May we all be so grateful for the good in our lives!

Here’s my favorite quote:

“Dear old world”, she murmured, “you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”

In the comments, please share yours!

Kate Hillyer writes middle grade novels in the D.C. area, but is certain she’s going to make it to Prince Edward Island someday. Look for her in long red braids soon. In the meantime, she blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, and maintains her own book blog at Kid Book List. She’s also a 2017 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katehillyer.com. 

 

 

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