I remember as a kid one of the readers they gave us at school. You know, the sort of book that has a mix of different stories, including excerpts from novels. There was this one excerpt that had such cool artwork and was a clever dinner party scene. I enjoyed reading it over and over until I just had to buy the book.
And that was my introduction to Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth...
This is definitely one of my favorite books to read. I found one of the early hardcovers and paid a ridiculous sum but as soon as I sat down and started reading, I was transported to Juster's enchanted world.
The story is one boy's quest, though at the start he has no idea that he's set out on a journey that will change his life. Milo is a boy who takes the world around him for granted. He only sees the mundane.
Then, one birthday, he receives a mysterious present. A box containing a tollbooth kit. For the first time in his life, Milo feels a sense of curiosity. So, he gets into the pedal car he was given years ago and never bothered using, and embarks through the tollbooth... and finds himself Someplace Else. Along the way, every good hero needs some companions, and so Milo is joined by the watchdog Tock (a literal blend of canine and clock) and the Humbug, who is a bit of bore but very loyal to the end.
This is a fantasy novel about discovering the joy of learning and thinking... a teacher's daydream. And before you think it would have to read like a student's nightmare, let me say that this is a most witty and clever book (on par, in my opinion, Dahl's many works). You just can't help smiling as Milo encounters the denizens of Dictionopolis (where one can truly eat his own words) or faces the demons at the Mountains of Ignorance.
I suppose when you're in your late teens learning can seem like the last thing you want to do on a sunny day. But experiencing life, meeting new friends, thinking new thoughts, is learning. And Juster's novel has always been the book that I can turn to, for a reminder that words have meaning beyond just an arrangement of letters.
I think this book will make you laugh and then pause and remember what it was like to be that boy with a book. Some times it can be lonely being that boy who loses himself in pages. But better to be him, to be interested in worlds, then be trapped as poor Milo was at Tollbooth's beginning. Trust me.
Btw, Chuck Jones, of Bugs Bunny / Warner Brothers fame, created an animated version of The Phantom Tollbooth. It's pretty good (though not the same as reading the book, of course) and worth viewing with much popcorn and friends.
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