Norton Juster •
The Phantom Tollbooth •
I’m happy to report that The Phantom Tollbooth is just as good now as it was when Mr. Johnston read it aloud to our sixth-grade class. (He was an irascible man who barked at you if you mispronounced his name, but he understood the value of reading to kids.)
The book is ostensibly about Milo, a little boy who is bored by everything. “While he was never anxious to be where he was going, he liked to get there as quickly as possible.” One day Milo receives a mysterious package, assembles its contents, and undertakes a hero’s quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason.
But it’s the English language that plays the real starring role here. Figures of speech spring to dramatic life across the landscape. There is a Spelling Bee, who “used to get part-time work in people’s bonnets” before specializing in orthography. There is an Island of Conclusions, which Milo naturally jumps to, and a vehicle that moves only when its occupants are silent—because “it goes without saying.”
The best supporting actor has four furry paws. Tock is everything you could want in a traveling companion—intelligent, loyal, brave, funny, a good conversationalist—as well as being a watchdog in the most literal sense: His body is an alarm clock. Tock winds himself with his left hind leg and is inclined to ring when he gets agitated. Hanging around with Milo gives him plenty of occasions to ring.
It’s been more than 50 years since The Phantom Tollbooth—sometimes called the American Alice in Wonderland—was published, and a very young Anna Quindlen announced in her book report: “This is the best book ever.” The rest of us have gotten older since 1961, but Tock and Milo remain ageless.