The Phantom Tollbooth (Norman Juster)

Way back when (in a land of myth and a time of magic) I was listening to Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, and in this memoir of childhood reading she talked about this nonsensical book she’d adored. I fell completely in love with the description, and promptly bought it on kindle. The book was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster, and it’s positively barmy!

Title: The Phantom Tollbooth
Author: Norman Juster
Published: First published 1961
Pages: 272
Format: Kindle

This book is absolutely positively wonderful, and I think I would have disliked it immensely if I were ten or eleven trying to read it for the first time. At that age, I was massively into animal books, and what I would now call Logical Fantasy (So, Harry Potter and Northern Lights where the fantasy kinda makes sense). I disliked the book of Alice in Wonderland when I was that age (love it now). But now, as an adult – lordy me, the Phantom Tollbooth is incredible!!!!! 

It’s about a little boy called Milo who is bored of everything and annoyed by everything. He receives a purple tollbooth and gets in the little car and finds himself in The Land Beyond, visiting Di. He meets a Whether man, gets lost and lethargic, befriends a ticking Watch Dog called Tock (the dog is a clock), jumps to conclusions, purchases words, digs for digits, and sets off to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason to restore to their throne in the city of Wisdom, meeting even more interesting people and demons along the way.

This is a book for you if you like word play. Milo and his friends (Tock and Humbug) literally jump to the island of conclusions and a creature that adores loud noises is called the DYNNE. It’s extremely entertaining, as idioms are taken seriously, and the argument as to whether letters or words are more important has caused a family feud and the Land Beyond to split into the Dictionopolis and Digitopolis run by two prince brothers (Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathmagician) who disagree. It’s wildly entertaining and seems very much a book to be read aloud, for the full effect of the word play to be heard.

The Phantom Tollbooth is such wonderful nonsense, and I can see it appealing equally to children (who may not quite understand the entertainment value in the Lethargians of the Doldrums, killing time) and to adults (who will). It’s about loving learning, and has a lot of education value. When Milo goes to the word market he learns about synonyms and which letters are more frequently used (represented by taste – a “z” tastes rather bland) and when in digitopolis they go mining for numbers, and Milo tries to climb to infinity (and fails, learning that infinity never ends). It is beautifully constructed, and my kindle edition had copies of the illustrations by Jules Feiffer.

One of my favourite things about this book is that colours are conducted by Chroma, who brings the sunset and the sunrise and fills the day colour with his orchestra. What a cool idea?!?!?!

I fully recommend the Phantom Tollbooth to anyone with an interest in words, wordplay and asking questions. To whet your appetite, I have included a few of my favourite quotes!

“once there was no time at all, and people found it very inconvenient”

“We’re not interested in making sense; it’s not our job,”

“You see what a dull place the world would be without colour?” he said, bowing until his chin almost touched the ground. “But what pleasure to lead my violins in a serenade of spring green or hear my trumpets blare out the blue sea and then watch the oboes tint it all in warm yellow sunshine. And rainbows are best of all – and blazing neon signs, and the soft, muted tones of a foggy day. We play them all.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the Mathemagician as he scooped up the pieces. “We use the broken ones for fractions.”

The Phantom Tollbooth (Various pages)

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