Waiting for my flight home from Chicago over Thanksgiving, I glanced up from my book and saw a family mesmerized by their various electronic devices. Mom and Dad were checking their email on their cell phones. The son, who looked to be about 8, was playing a video game on his gadget, while his sister, who was probably 10, watched a movie on her iPad. Watching the kids made me realize I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a kid passing the time by reading a book.
This leads me a New Year’s resolution I’m hoping you’ll put on your list: dare to ask kids you love to tear themselves away from their electronic gizmos for an hour or so, and instead, snuggle up while you read them a great story. And I have just the one: “The Phantom Toll Booth,” written by Norton Juster and hilariously illustrated by the incomparable Jules Feiffer. Although it’s been around for over 50 years, “Tollbooth” has never been out of print, and for good reason. Comparable in many ways to “Alice in Wonderland” (another great read for the third to fifth graders in your life), “Tollbooth” resonates with children and adults alike because it contains everything we love: fantasy, adventure, strange, comical, exasperating, even slightly scary characters, and a carload of humor.
Not only that, but its protagonist, an 8- or 9-year-old boy named Milo, is a lot like kids today. Milo is bored – almost to the point of depression. He finds nothing in his everyday life interesting. Neither school nor toys engage his attention. But when he discovers a mysterious package in his bedroom, with instructions for assembling and using its contents, he’s just a little intrigued, and the next thing you know, he’s put together a tollbooth, hopped into his trusty electric car, paid the toll, and driven through this portal into a strange world where nothing makes sense.
“If you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself,” says Dodecahedron, a character he meets in Digitopolis, one of the many cities he visits. And sense he must make if he’s to rescue two imprisoned princesses, Rhyme and Reason, and restore the land to order. Fortunately for Milo, he meets, early on, a large, friendly dog aptly named Tock, since most of the dog’s body consists of a huge alarm clock. Milo will need Tock’s talents to escape assorted monsters once they find Rhyme and Reason. Fortunately, as we all know, “Time flies.” In their travels, they meet up with the Spelling Bee, a which (not a witch) named Faintly Macabre, and a dopey policeman, Officer Short Shrift, among others.
As you may have noticed there’s a lot of wordplay going on here, and to me, this is the greatest pleasure in reading “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Puns and plays on word meanings, clichés, and homonyms abound. Kids will love it when, during a visit to the kingdom of Dictionopolis, Milo is forced to eat his words, and dines on synonym buns, ragamuffins and half-baked ideas. Of course, he also gets his just desserts. While third graders may not have the vocabulary needed in order to get all the jokes, you will be there to help them. And since they will want to read the book many times, the more sophisticated wordplay will guarantee that they continue to find new pleasure in the story as they get older. Besides which, you, the grownup reader, will be thoroughly entertained.
My favorite of Milo’s adventures takes place in Chapter 10, where he encounters the Color Symphony, which he must watch, rather than hear, as it plays the colors of the day, from sunrise to sunset. Milo is so entranced that, at day’s end, “…he curled up on the pages of tomorrow’s music and eagerly awaited the dawn.” The next day he receives a wonderful present: a telescope. As the little boy who gives Milo this gift explains, “Through it you can see everything from the tender moss in a sidewalk crack to the glow of the farthest star – and, most important of all, you can see things as they really are, not just as they seem to be.”
Without moralizing (a quality I detest in children’s books), “Tollbooth” manages to sneak in a lot of important lessons, in addition to the pleasure of words. It teaches the value of thinking for oneself, self-reliance, developing new perspectives and paying careful attention to the world around us. As one character stuck in an area called The Doldrums tells Milo, “People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.” And of course, this is exactly where Milo was before his adventure began.
Like Alice, when she awakens from her nap after her dream of Wonderland, Milo discovers, on his return to his bedroom, that he’s only been gone an hour. The next day, he can’t wait to get home from school and take another trip. Naturally, the phantom tollbooth has vanished as mysteriously as it arrived, leaving our hero excited about exploring his own world, at last. And just think: you too can use the power of “The Phantom Tollbooth” to excite some lucky child!