fiction favorites…The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, illustrations by Jules Feiffer

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.
When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in.  On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going…
“It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,” he remarked one day as he walked dejectedly home from school.  “I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February.” And, since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.

Ah.  Poor Milo.  Squandering his days in listless boredom.  Until…a magical, purple tollbooth arrives at his house one day! And  he drives his small electric automobile through that tollboth and off to a curious-sounding place called The Lands Beyond.  Just as Alice falls down a hole and lands in Wonderland, so Milo drives through a tollbooth and lands in …Dictionopolis!

For Dictionopolis is a truly fantastical place…where delicious words are sold in markets; where a rigmarole is found in a bread basket, and half-baked ideas come from the bakery; where Spelling Bees and Humbugs and Watchdogs dwell; and where, a while back,  everyone dwelt peacefully enough with the neighboring kingdom of Digitopolis, until the princesses Rhyme and Reason were banished.

Well, without Rhyme or Reason, what do you expect will happen?  Confusion and chaos and war and disrepair, that’s what!  So, Milo and his trusty companions set out to rescue the princesses.  To do this, they must make a perilous journey into the mountains of Ignorance, where nasty creatures dwell such as the Gross Exaggeration who has terribly nasty teeth, and the Threadbare Excuse, all pathetic and worn-out. 

Along the way, Milo makes some mistakes, at one point jumping to Conclusions — an unpleasant place that is surprisingly easy to get to — and temporarily losing his sense of purpose to the Senses Taker.  He also meets extraordinary folk such as Chroma the Great, who conducts a symphony of colors that play over the earth throughout the day and night, and the Soundkeeper, who is responsible for all the lovely sounds and silences in the world but who has been overwhelmed recently by Dr. Dischord and his sidekick, the awful Dynne.  Milo debates with the Mathemagician about the value of numbers, and meets the Average Child.  Crazy!

This is an exceedingly clever book, swarming with brilliant puns,  cunning wordplay, eccentric characters, oddball humor, and highly original fantasy, yet grounded as well in profound truths about our culture — our frenetic pace, our preoccupation and carelessness, our boredom, clamor, and the dumbing down of us all.  This is a book with an ending we all long for in our own kids, delivered not with a giant medicine spoon, but with a large helping of wit and wonder.  Because the humor will be lost on kids without an adequate knowledge of puns and idioms, I would hold off on this until perhaps age 10.