One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes says, “A children’s story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story.” Can I get an amen from anyone else reading books to half-pints? Some books are just so lame that I end up returning them to the library as quickly as possible. (I’m looking at you, Pinkalicious.) For every book I just can’t read one more time, I’ve also discovered wonderful children’s classics that I missed when I was a young reader myself. The good news is that good books, whether children’s or not, rarely spoil. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is one of those books that I’ve known about my whole life but still never read. So here we are, over 50 years after publication, and I have a question. How did I not know that The Phantom Tollbooth is such a funny story?
The book follows Milo, a boy who is eternally bored with everything. (I laughed at this. My often-bored third grader didn’t get the joke.) When a mysterious tollbooth shows up in his room with a map of The Lands Beyond, Milo haphazardly drives his toy car through because he has nothing better to do. Milo ends up on an adventure to rescue the sister princesses Rhyme and Reason, without whom the Land of Wisdom is falling into disarray. Each chapter highlights a different adventure along his route, starting in Dictionopolis, a city inhabited by words. The story in of itself is entertaining enough, but the true genius of The Phantom Tollbooth is how Juster plays with idioms and words. Guests at the royal feast in Dictionopolis actually eat their own words, for example. And you definitely don’t want to end up on the wrong side of the Spelling Bee.
I may have jumped the gun a bit on reading this one aloud, although we still all enjoyed it. I imagine this would be a great book for 8+, although my girls (2 and 4) were happy to sit in on the story. I think I’ll try it again in another couple years and see if I’m still the only one laughing at the puns. It can’t have been completely over their heads, though, because the kids still talk about Alec, the boy who grows down instead of up. I can close my eyes and see the orchestra that plays colors instead of notes in my mind’s eye, even though it has been months since we read the book.
In a recent Get Booked! podcast, the hosts recommended The Phantom Tollbooth to a teacher looking for a promotion gift for students leaving elementary school in place of the wonderful (but common) Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuess. I think it’s a perfect suggestion! I may wrap it up for some high school grads I know this spring as well. It’s ultimately a book about Milo learning to use his noggin to get out of sticky situations and learning to really be present in the world around him.