I first read The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster way back in middle school. (And, for everyone not lucky enough to have grown up in Texas, middle school doesn’t mean junior high. It’s usually 5th and 6th though sometimes 4th grades). At least, I’m pretty sure that’s when I read it. But when isn’t so much important when it comes to The Phantom Tollbooth, because I still remember the book. It’s one of those magical stories that you carry with you from childhood to adulthood and can’t quite let go of, the kind of book that was the inspiration for our Flashback Fridays.
The Phantom Tollbooth tells the story of Milo, a young boy who is bored. Bored of his games and his routine and school and…everything. But one day he comes home and there is a tollbooth waiting for him. A magic tollbooth. A phantom tollbooth that is going to change everything. Milo passes through the tollbooth and enters into a new, magical place called the Kingdom of Wisdom. He journeys through this new kingdom, picking up companions and having adventures as he tries to help his watchdog, Tock, save the day.
Even as a young girl, this book was smart in addition to being fantastical and fun to read. I remember feeling smarter reading it. This wasn’t a fairy story or an adventure that was dumbed down (though the 1961 publication date probably helped there), but was instead written to entertain and occupy a child’s mind on a multitude of levels. And it works. This isn’t just a boy slaying a dragon. This is a boy conquering the Mountain of Ignorance to save Rhyme and Reason. Using knowledge as power. The pen is mightier than the sword! It’s awesome. It’s clever. And it’s relatable.
Under all the cleverness and puns, it’s just plain fun to read. If this had been an ordinary adventure…if Milo had had to climb a Mount Doom or slay a dragon named George? It would have been just as fun to read and just as exciting. At the end of the day, it was a great fantasy-esque read all on its own. Even with the smarts this book brought to the table, at the end of the day it’s about a hero rescuing some princesses.
What helps is that Milo is so well written. He feels like an average boy in extraordinary circumstances. Milo makes anybody feel like they could do what he does. That if you work hard and arm yourself with knowledge, you too can slay the demons he slays. That you don’t have to be a genius, you just have to work hard. And that was one of the many messages I took away from this book. Watching Milo go from a bored kid to a slayer of ignorance? It’s inspiring even now.
The Phantom Tollbooth is a book every kid should read. It’s the kind of book that my younger brother (who’s now 25) loves to this day, even though he isn’t a reader. I swear, if that boy got on an airplane, a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth was in his bag. And when he got on a plane to go to Afghanistan, a copy was in his bag. It’s that kind of book. It’s the kind of book I have on my bookshelf so I can share it with nephews and younger cousins. And also so that, approximately 17 years after first reading it, I can curl up in bed and get lost in Milo’s adventures again. I hope all of you will (or have) as well.