Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, The Phantom Tollbooth (Knopf, 1961)

One of my earliest childhood memories is from when I was about four. My grandmother put me down for a nap in her bedroom and turned on the old ivory plastic radio. A man's voice drifted from the speak, reading a story about a boy named Milo who was always bored and uninterested in life. One day, he finds a mysterious package in his room containing a toy tollbooth. Milo assembles it, gets into a toy car, and drives through it.

I never heard any more of it at the time, but four or five years later, while rummaging through a bag of books passed on by a cousin, I came across The Phantom Tollbooth. I opened it, began to read, and realized that this was the book I'd heard! (This is really a double childhood memory.) Since then, I have reread it many times, and it's still a well-loved favorite.

Milo travels through the tollbooth in the Kingdom of Wisdom, a strange and wonderful land, where his first stop is Expectations -- so naturally, he goes beyond Expectations. (Yes. The whole book is like this.) He acquires a passenger, a watchdog named Tock, and goes to Dictionopolis, where words and letters reign supreme. At a banquet (where he must eat his words -- I told you the whole book is like this) he is charged with a quest: to bring the princesses Rhyme and Reason back from exile in the Castle in the Air. Unfortunately, that happens to be somewhere above the Mountains of Ignorance.

Still, Milo accepts the task and sets out with Tock and another companion, the nattily dressed Humbug, whose answer to most questions is "Seventeen!" (For those of you who are Douglas Adams fans, seventeen does not divide evenly into forty-two. I already tried.) They travel through the Forest of Sight, checking out the Point of View, jump to Conclusions and visit the Valley of Sound. In Digitopolis, the city of numbers, they meet the Mathmagician, the twelve-faced Dodecahedron and the .58 child, of the average family of 2.58 children.

Finally, the intrepid three make their way to the Mountains of Ignorance, where they must avoid such demons as the Gross Exaggeration, the Overbearing Know-it-all and the Threadbare Excuse. They complete their quest, and Milo returns home much more interested in life and learning.

Had this book been written now, (although not by Mr. Juster), I'm sure it would have been saccharine, didactic and pedantic, beating the reader over the head with The Lesson. (As far as I'm concerned, The Lesson is one of the demons.) Instead, the book is packed with wit, lots and lots of puns, and wonderful, memorable characters. Jules Feiffer's remarkable line drawings complement the story perfectly.

When a children's book stays in print for nearly forty years, there has to be a reason. Read it yourself to find out why.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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