The Phantom Tollbooth
by Norton Juster
The Phantom Tollbooth was one of my favorite children's books. A few months back I reread it to see if the story held up to a more jaundiced eye. It did. I believe that this is one of the rare books that can be equally enjoyed by both children and adults. Adults and precocious children alike will appreciate the unending wordplay, puns and explorations of paradox. Adults might also take to heart the book's underlying message that time is precious and that what you do on this planet matters. The Phantom Tollbooth can also be understood as a quirky Alice in Wonderland story and enjoyed purely on that level. The book made just as much of an impression for the illustrations, provided by famed cartoonist Jules Feiffer, as it did for the story. This is a relatively short story that doesn't waste a lot of time on character development. This makes sense because the protagonist literally doesn't have time for long discussions with one or two people. He's thrown immediately into adventure.
People are annoyed that he doesn't get up to speed as quickly as they would like. This is an ongoing source of humor throughout the book. It is interesting that this author was able to get so much out of the "You could do it all along" trope which is found in Dumbo, The Wizard of Oz, and many other stories. Again, I would bet that this book has more puns contained within than any other book with the exception of stories written by Terry Pratchett. Milo is a preteen child who is, despite his tender age, bored and cynical about the world. He can't stand school and views afternoons as nearly impossible to get through. Although he's not suicidal or anything he is a little depressed. Life seems pretty meaningless. And there's too much of it left.
One day after getting home from school Milo finds a mysterious box in his room. Well there are some people who never open mysterious boxes from unknown people but Milo is not one of them. Milo discovers that the box contains a tollbooth and a map of places that are evidently not on Earth. Thinking it's just a silly game and being too bored and lazy to do anything else, Milo sets up the tollbooth and drives through it in his electric toy car. He is shocked when he finds himself on a road in a place that is obviously not his apartment. Milo undertakes an adventure with the talking watchdog Tock and the human size Humbug. Tock, who as a watchdog, has a giant clock on each side of his body, is the voice of reason. The cowardly and boastful Humbug is the hero of his story to hear him tell it even though as one person tells him, he's almost never right about anything and if he ever is it's an accident.
These three are accidental would be peacemakers between the feuding kings of the land, King Azaz The Unabridged, who holds that all knowledge and worth can be found in words and his brother The Mathemagician, who just as stubbornly thinks that numbers and numbers alone hold everything that is valuable. Their younger adopted sisters Rhyme and Reason were able to temper their brothers' rivalry and bring consistent happiness to the land. But ever since the sisters refused to say that either numbers or words were more important than one another their brothers dropped their rivalry long enough to banish their kid sisters. Since then the two kings have rekindled their feud and refuse to talk to each other. Their kingdoms are falling into disrepair as more and more land is lost to various demons of ignorance. Milo sets off with Tock and The Humbug on a seemingly hopeless quest to restore Rhyme and Reason to the land. During their time together they experience many strange places and people, including but not limited to the lonely isle of conclusions (which you reach by jumping after you thought something stupid), people who literally eat their words, children who start at their adult height and grow downwards, a Groucho Marx like doctor named Kakophonous A. Dischord who loves loud sounds and has an assistant known as the Awful Dynne, a policeman who enjoys putting people in jail for millions of years but doesn't care if they actually serve the sentence, the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, who lives to misinterpret whatever you say, and the Dodecahedron, possessor of twelve faces who is confused that Milo has only one face.
The Dodecahedron is even more confused when he learns that not everyone with just one face is called a Milo. That makes no sense mathematically to the Dodecahedron. And in his land numbers are everything. Juster has a lot of fun showing how numbers and words can be used in a pointless manner.
This is a funny book full of puns. Or if you like a punny book, full of fun. My life is better for having read it as an adult and as a child. It's ironic and fitting that this book, which tells the reader how precious life is and how horrible boredom is, was created when the writer was bored with his actual assignment and decided to work on something else.