An author in the early 1960s was fighting to publish a book that many rejected as being too difficult for children. The vocabulary was extensive and it dealt with abstract reasoning and concepts like infinity. Publishers at the time argued that kids’ books should clearly be for kids and grown-up books should clearly be for grown-ups. Anything in between would just discourage young people from reading. This book is now considered a classic. It is not, however, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Published just one year earlier, I want to talk about Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.
What I really want to do is use “I LOVE THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH” as a title and include 20-30 quotes, but I will resist. I could also provide a variety of academic-sounding reasons why this book is worth talking about, but the honest reason is my deep, unapologetic love for the first book I read as a child that assumed I was smart. It also helps that the book is an unabashed love letter to the English language. To be fair, any book that introduced a long-winded but ultimately useless “Whether Man” and a literal clock-bearing “watchdog” in its first few chapters would have won me over on pure wit. There is an Island of Conclusions that characters have to jump to reach and a banquet where the protagonist must literally eat his words. It would be easy for such a book to settle for schtick. But Juster turns otherwise abstract concepts into places that can be visited and characters with voices of their own, and suddenly a kid has a chance to engage deeply with concepts that the adults in her life might think are too advanced for her.
So many lessons that people assume have to be limited to classrooms are given room to play on the narrative page. Forget just asking kids what a dodecahedron is; let them imagine what it would be like to have a conversation with one. Averages are given a new meaning when you meet the partial child from the average family. You might think more about using common expressions if comparing something to “falling off a log” meant that you actually fell off of one. These meant so much more to me as part of a story than they would have on a blackboard.
At its most basic level, the story is a quest. But unlike many quests, the child asked to undertake it isn’t chosen because he is noble, brave, secretly magical, or wise beyond his years. This quest is placed before him because he lacks focus or direction. And he doesn’t start his quest because of a noble purpose; he doesn’t even know it’s a quest. A mysterious tollbooth has appeared in his room, and Milo goes through it for no better reason than being bored.
Once through the tollbooth, Milo finds himself in the Kingdom of Wisdom plopped on a road in Expectations. Why? Because Expectations is “The place you must always go before you get where you’re going.” He makes his way through Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, gets trapped in the Doldrums by his own lack of thought, and faces the dangers of The Mountains of Ignorance. Like any good quest, there is discord in the land. But rather than being the result of some overarching evil or a villain with grand ambitions, the strife comes down to letters and numbers. There is a princess locked in a tower – two in fact – but these princesses are hardly traditional royalty. They are Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason, and they are the rational center of the whole kingdom. And why have they been banished? Because of their unpopular ruling that letters and numbers are equally important. Be still, my childhood heart.
The author doesn’t just enjoy the potential created by his world; he basks in it, gleefully taking his time. The result may be challenging for young readers, but it is also a book that is almost impossible to read passively. The puns are so rapid and the wordplay so sharp that you have to work to catch them all. And while there are illustrations, Jules Feiffer’s work just helps set off your imagination rather than contain it. I have since learned that the author and illustrator ended up in a playful challenge, with Juster trying to write things that were impossible to draw and Feiffer finding a way. I can’t help but wonder if that rivalry is partly to thank for such gems as the .58 boy from the average family or the Triple Demons of Compromise: “One is short and fat, one is tall and thin and one is just like the others.”
Milo meets many adult characters in Wisdom, but none of them serve the guiding mentor role that so often comes in quests. And that lack of a clear mentor means that we don’t get the “the universe is depending on you to be strong and brave in the face of adversity/we believe in you” speech. Just the opposite. After Milo completes his quest, he is abruptly informed that it had been impossible. “But if we’d told you then, you might not have gone --- and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” And rather than regretting mistakes, Milo is told to lean into them. “‘You must never feel badly about making mistakes,’ explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong ones.’” A young reader might have to dig around in that sentence structure before they really figure it out, but that is a gratifying effort in itself.
The Phantom Tollbooth also lacks the clean ending that comes with most quests. Milo can see the rumblings of a new feud brewing as he leaves and it is clear that his work has only temporarily restored order. He thinks about going back again, but finds that the tollbooth is gone and a note “For Milo, who now knows the way” has been left in its place. Yes, Milo completed a quest, but the Kingdom has probably changed back to the way it was without him. Perhaps changing Milo was a worthy enough quest on its own. It can be so tempting to frame learning in the context of some bigger mission or some need to change the world, but there is so much to gain from kids who believe in the value of learning for learning’s own sake. Hard to do? Sure. But we can try to remember, “… it’s very much like your trying to reach infinity. You know that it’s there, you just don’t know where – but just because you can never reach it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth looking for.”