Review: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

By: Renee Hecht

Back on April 23rd, I woke up to find that it was World Book Day. In honor of this event, I had decided to write a brief review of particular book that had a huge hand in fostering my love of reading. That book was The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster.

This book has always been, and will always be, very dear to my heart. Even as I get older, I find myself  remembering snatches of the story. The book follows a boy named Milo who receives a toy car and tollbooth for his birthday. Since he has “Nothing better to do”, he gets in the car and proceeds to drive, quickly discovering that the toys are magic, and that he has been transported to a new world. Milo and his steadfast companions (Tock the watchdog and The Humbug) undertake a journey through the Kingdom of Wisdom, seeking to restore the kingdom’s princesses: Rhyme and Reason.

I thought long and hard about reviewing the book, and how I might approach it, but there was one huge problem: I couldn’t seem to get started. It may not come as a surprise that free time is something of a luxury for me (as it is for most of us), and so I sadly let things fall to the wayside. I never stopped thinking about it, but I certainly didn’t step right in and finish it.

The longer I thought about reviewing the book, the more I remembered about it. The more I remembered, the more I wanted to reread it. In fact, it made me want to read a great many books I had put off long ago. My Sherlock Holmes collection, the Lovecraft gathering dust under my bed, the novels and short stories that made up over half of the boxes I brought with me when I moved out of my parent’s house. It was a little amazing, really, that the memory of one book finally convinced me to sit down and do something different.

I felt quite a lot like Milo when I finally forced myself to pick the old book back up. I had hardly any direction, I’d been dragging my feet about my old projects, I was dreading the thought of starting anything new, and then – suddenly – I found myself presented with a perfectly good excuse to start doing all the things I’d been procrastinating over – Why Not?

“That’s a good reason for almost anything—a bit used perhaps, but still quite serviceable.”

The characters and plot structure of the book are fairly straightforward, and thus lack many of the layers that plots and characters tend to have in “grown up” books. However, this should not deter you. The book may be aimed a young audience, but the messages are worth taking in at any age.

In the book, Milo travels through a number of odd places, learning and growing each step of the way. He goes from being stuck in the Doldrums (where thinking is banned) to Dictionopolis (a place where one must mind their words). From there, he travels to Point of View – where he meets people who grow from the sky downward, and who find it amusing that “when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten”. He sees Illusion from a distance, and walks through Reality. He learns to appreciate sounds, and time, and even math. He faces the seemingly polite requests of the Terrible Trivium, and he comes to the conclusion that Insincerity is no real threat.

If there were ever a celebration of real learning, it is this book. It encourages one to approach problems from multiple perspectives, to ask questions, and to dream. It encourages the sort of thinking that brings interest and meaning to real life. Whereas Milo begins his journey unsure of where he ought to go, or what he ought to want, he ends it realizing that he has so many things to look forward to.

As an adult, this book struck a different cord with me than it did when I was young. My trouble now is not with school, per se, but with the trials of life in a world where creative or imaginative thinking tends to be stifled or written off as “a distraction”. We’ve all dealt with the Mountains of Ignorance, and we’ve all been stuck in The Doldrums. It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that our perspectives can change, and that we can always find a new direction. After all “so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

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