Childhood Favorites: The Phantom Tollbooth

[This is the first in a series of posts this summer in which we here at the blog will talk about our favorite children’s books — either from our own childhood or ones we have discovered more recently — and share the reasons we love them. We hope you enjoy! -Blog Admin]

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

My favorite book from childhood is, hands down, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  It remains to this day a book that I reference in my daily conversations and think of whenever someone mentions the doldrums, a spelling bee or Rhyme and Reason.

My parents read me The Phantom Tollbooth chapter by chapter every night before bed, as they did many other books, including The Little Prince (my second all-time favorite, though I still question it is for children, book), Stuart Little, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit and scores of others.  As a child, I delighted in the adventures of Milo and his watchdog Tock (an unfortunate name for a dog whose giant watch goes ‘tick’).  They traveled through an unknown land, battling beasties, defeating tricksters, experiencing beautiful sunsets and met kings and princesses.  It was a fantastic story, all about a bored little boy who found an adventure in his own room by making use of a magic tollbooth that simply appeared in his room. What could be better!

It wasn’t until I got older, into high school, that I revisited The Phantom Tollbooth and realized that while the book had been entertaining for a child, it was HILARIOUS for an adult.  I had not realized, having the book read aloud to me as a kid, how many puns, homonyms and plays on words were used to comedic and sometimes dramatic effect in the novel.  I was so busy being delighted at the concept of eating words or playing the sunsets by conducting an orchestra, that I hadn’t paid close attention to all of the word play taking place.  The actual words on the page, while conveying the plot of the story, also conveyed the pliable and flexible nature of language itself.  The use of homonyms (calling the old crone, Faintly Macabre, a ‘Which’ and not a ‘Witch’) adds layers of complexity to a somewhat archetypal story line.  Further, the war between the two kings, King Azaz the Unabridged, ruler oof of Dictionopolis, and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis, over whether letters or numbers were more important still rings true in some ways (at least as certain government officials decry the uselessness of humanities as compared to STEM majors).

The literal interpretations of English idioms remain my favorite part of the book.  I love that when Milo gets ‘stuck in the Doldrums’ he is actually moving extremely slowly through a physical space called “The Doldrums.”  The physical act of leaping to conclusions brings Milo and the Humbug flying off to an island. I still shiver in fear at the mention of the Senses Taker (especially a few years ago when a real live Census Taker showed up at my house!)  And I still cheer anytime Rhyme and Reason are returned and Wisdom reigns throughout the land!  The illustrations, by Jules Feiffer, help the younger reader navigate the hilarity of these literal interpretations, making it clear that not every saying that comes out of an adult mouth makes complete sense!

Perhaps it speaks to my existence as a life-long lover of language and the power of words that I remember this book most fondly from my childhood. I heard that this book was adapted into a film.  Also a play.  Also an opera.  But let me tell you, I have absolutely no interest in seeing any of those adaptations.  To me, the book will always exist in its already perfected form and I need no adaptation to see what I have missed.  This book is new every time I read it and it changes in meaning each time as well.

Rebekah is a PhD student.

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  1. Pingback: Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making « Kid Lit at UF

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