Illustration by Ben Beechener
As a child, reading was always about 3/4 of my personality. I was never very big on playground socialization and I went through a phase where all I’d do at lunchtimes was read. I loved classic children’s novels; I remember an adoration of Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess) that has lasted from age seven onwards, and I can still recall my insistent recommendations of Goodnight Mister Tom to everyone in Year 5. Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, however, came to me a little later, at the recommendation of a family friend who gave me her own well-read copy when I was 12. I’m glad it did, because I think it made me appreciate it more. Lots of books had made me cry before, but The Phantom Tollbooth was the first book I read that changed me into a lover of language as well as a lover of stories.
If you haven’t read it (and please do, it’s only short!), the premise of Juster’s book is this: in a journey which is a cross between a pilgrimage and a great American road trip, a listless boy called Milo travels into the fantastical Kingdom of Wisdom by way of a toy tollbooth that is delivered to his house. In this land he embarks on a quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason and restore order once more. That is the wonderful thing about children’s books: they can be unashamedly fun. Juster’s novel is one that revels in fun, right down to the language itself.
It is a book written by someone who loves what words can do. Littered with puns and cheeky maxims (“It’s bad enough wasting time without killing it”, for example, or when Milo has to very literally eat his words) it is a genuinely joyful – and hilarious – read. At 12, I remember being extremely excited by the experimental way in which words were chosen. Idioms are unpacked and repacked to change meanings and the metaphorical is made literal with gleeful abandon. A great example of this is the various place names within the text: the Sea of Knowledge is a literal sea that “you can swim in all day and never get wet” and the Doldrums is a place Milo ends up when he’s not paying attention. This was something that really influenced me creatively: Juster’s joy for language in turn changed the way I wrote, to the extent that it still influences the way I write today. I still look to make puns in my poetry. Almost all of the characters in The Phantom Tollbooth play with words, mess with perspectives and revel in a special kind of nonsense: a nonsense that means something.
Because that’s the other great thing about children’s books – they’re beautifully didactic. The Phantom Tollbooth is a book written to teach the reader a lesson. We learn through humour and wacky hijinks the power of being kind, of listening, of understanding other people. This is standard children’s book fare, I agree, a lovely little tale with wisdom to teach a ten year old. Yet there is something acutely ageless about Milo’s apathy at the beginning of the novel; he is a boy with nothing to do and no one to see and nothing, it seems, to enjoy. This sense of emptiness and uselessness is I think terribly relatable, especially considering the text in a world of lockdown and pandemic. Don’t we all feel terribly useless sometimes?
Juster’s solution – through a toy tollbooth and fantasy adventure – is surprisingly simple. It’s learning. We meet a cast of characters that always have something to say, from the Mathemagician (the magical ruler of the land of numbers, Digitopolis) to the Whether Man (a pun on a Weather Man, who can only inform Milo whether there will be weather – not what the weather will be), to Tock the Clock dog (very literally a ‘Watchdog’). They speak and Milo responds, and he always has something to learn and improve from (even if it’s just a new way to think critically). There are always questions to ask and answers to find. This knowledge, that you can always learn, was of great comfort to me as a child. It is still of great comfort to me today.
There’s a part in Milo’s journey where he meets a boy named Alec. Alec floats. He sees things at the height he will be as an adult and he reacts to Milo growing upwards (instead of downwards) in shock: “Why, when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again.” This is a nod not just to the children who open the book, but the adults that return to it. There is always a new pun to be found, or a new phrase that’s probably too clever for its own good. We can smile wryly at the way Alec’s family have the luxury – and the mundanity – of always seeing things the same. My favourite part of this witty exchange, however, is the admission that not everyone grows as Alec does. Some people’s feet grow the wrong way, towards the sky. These people grow “ten times the size of everyone else” and Alec has “heard that they walk among the stars.” As a child I often felt like the awkward kid growing the wrong way and these words felt, to me, like a promise. Even if you’re growing the wrong way, sometimes it’s just the way you’re supposed to grow. After all, what is better than walking amongst stars?
The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those rare books that grows with you. Reading it today is not a nostalgic exercise, like meeting an old friend. It’s being taught something by someone who cares. Every time I read I find more that it wants to tell, a little bit more learning it wants me to love. It’s one of those books that has been a building block for who I am today, and how I think about the world. For this reason it has earned a spot on the bookshelf next to my bed as long as my copy holds together. Or until, as the tollbooth moves on when Milo has learnt his lesson, it needs to be passed on.