After many, many years, I have finally made a return trip to the Kingdom of Wisdom and The Lands Beyond. I first read Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth sometime during elementary school. That was at least twenty years ago. I remembered it being one of my favorite novels as a child. . I have to admit that my travels back with Milo and friends were just as exciting and fun as they were the first time. Not many books that I have read deserve five stars. The Phantom Tollbooth is an exception. Its ability to entertain, delight and amuse anyone from the young age of 9 to the ripe age of 90 gives it a star. Its clever use of word play, cliches and puns deserves a star. The fact that it is a children’s book that has been in print for over forty years warrants it a star. The wonderful illustrations by Jules Feiffer are worthy of a star. And they great sense of nostalgia it instilled in me from the very first chapter solidifies its five star status in my library. The Phantom Tollbooth is generally referred to as a children’s book however, its ability to grow with its reader sets it apart from others in its genre. As ones linguistic skills and reading comprehension increase so do the complexities and meanings of the ideas in the novel. As a reader becomes more mature, the allegory and symbolism become more visible, and the novel takes on a higher meaning.
The story begins by introducing the protagonist, Milo, who suffers from a terrible bout of boredom with life. Milo “didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always.” To Milo almost everything seemed a waste of time. Milo thought, “there’s nothing for me to do, nowhere for me to go, and hardly anything worth seeing.” That is until one day a tollbooth mysteriously shows up in his apartment. Milo, who had nothing better to do, decided to set assemble the booth and drive his electric car through. Milo soon found himself in the mysterious Kingdom of Knowledge and thus his adventures began. While in the Kingdom of Knowledge Milo learns that in order for the Kingdom not to perish, the princesses Rhyme and Reason must be rescued from there imprisonment in the Castle in the Air. During his adventures, Milo befriends Tock the “watch”dog, and an egotistical insect called Humbug who accompany him on the mission to rescue the princesses and save the day. Along the way, Milo and friends meet all kinds of crazy characters, learn numerous lessons and discover what it takes to live an accomplished, happier and more exciting life.
What makes this story unique is the Juster’s use of wordplay, figures of speech, context, and puns. For example, Milo drives his car into the Doldrums where everything runs extremely slow. Here Milo meets the Lethargarians and nobody ever gets anything done. In another instance Milo and company find they suddenly leapt to an island called Conclusions after making hasty assumptions. Once they jumped to Conclusions the only way back was swimming through the Sea of Knowledge. The entire book is filled with this kind of fun wordplay. Much of the book takes normal, everyday concepts and cliches and simply makes them literal. Juster has done this cleverly enough that it is easy excuse the recurrent use of the technique. Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, (another one of my Childhood favorites) writes "The Phantom Tollbooth leaps, soars, and abounds in right notes all over the place, as any proper masterpiece must".
"Well," said the old lady, just as a rat scurried across her foot. "I am the king's great-aunt. For years and years, I was in charge of choosing which words were to be used for all occasions, which ones to say and which ones not to say, which ones to write and which ones not to write. As you can well imagine, with all the thousands to choose from, it was a most important and responsible job. I was given the title of 'Official Which,' which made me very proud and happy.
"At first I did my best to make sure that only the most improper and fitting words were used. Everything was said clearly and simply and no words were wasted. I had signs posted all over the palace and market place which said:
Brevity is the soul of wit.
"But power corrupts, and soon I grew miserly and chose fewer and fewer words, trying to keep as many as possible for myself. I had new signs posted which said:
An ill-chosen word is the fool's messenger.
"Soon sales began to fall off in the market. The people were afraid to buy as many words as before, and hard times came to the kingdom. But still I grew more and more miserly. Soon there were so few words chosen that hardly anything could be said, and even casual conversation became difficult. Again I had new signs posted, which said:
Speak fitly or be silent wisely.
"And finally I had even these replaced by ones which read simply:
Silence is golden.
"All talk stopped. No words were sold, the market place closed down, and the people grew poor and disconsolate. When the king saw what had happened, he became furious and had me cast into this dungeon where you see me now, an older and wiser woman.
"That was all many years ago," she continued; "but they never appointed a new Which, and that explains why today people use as many words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so. For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few, it is often far worse to use too many."