Thursday, February 28, 2008

Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth
by Norton Juster
Recommended Age: 8+

Here is one of the classic children's books that started coming out in the 1960s (the current edition begins with an "appreciation" by Maurice Sendak, the friendly monster guy). Charmingly illustrated, it's somewhere in between nonsense humor à la Alice in Wonderland and gently satirical allegory à la Gulliver's Travels. It opens with a little boy, Milo, who is utterly bored with everything, doesn't know what to do with himself, and always wants to be somewhere else no matter where he is. At school, at play, books, games, he doesn't see the point of anything. Then he comes home and discovers a package in his bedroom, a gift from some unknown person, which turns out to be a make-believe tollbooth. He gets into his little electric car, having nothing else to do, and drives through it.

Next thing he knows, he's driving through a faraway land, the Kingdom of Wisdom, where he meets all kinds of outlandish characters and encounters various perils. He becomes fast friends with a "watchdog" named Tock, whose body is a ticking alarm clock, and a snappily dressed giant beetle called the Humbug. He visits the Doldrums, then Dictionopolis (the city of words, where letters grow on trees) ruled over by King Azaz the Unabridged. He meets the Spelling Bee (who spells every other word he says), he gets thrown into prison by a policeman/judge/jailer called Short Shrift, and then he gets sent on a quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from exile in the Castle in the Air.

I won't describe all the fantastic people and places they see along the way; it would spoil the fun! The story is of the moral variety, but very entertaining and clever along the way. The moral is, that there's a reason you have to learn everything you're supposed to learn (though you may not know it yet). Your life will be better, and the world will be better too, if you know math and literature, and look for beautiful things to see and hear, and above all if you learn to THINK. Because ignorance is dreadful, and a world without rhyme or reason (like, maybe what the world is becoming now) is not worth living in.

For all that it's a morality tale, and kind of an educational book in a way, it's also irresistably charming. There are little Wizard-of-Oz-like remarks, like how lots of people swim in the Sea of Knowledge and don't even get wet. Sendak begins his appreciation by pointing out how Tock the watchdog would be nothing more than a cliché of a didactic character who tells Milo that what he has to do is THINK, if in his next line he didn't hop into the toy car and say, "Do you mind if I get in? I love automobile rides." Every time Tock is alarmed, his alarm goes off. The humbug is a funny character too, blurting out "seventeen!" every time a math question is asked, and wavering between blustering courage and simpering cowardice.

And I haven't even begun to list the amusing touches in the story, such as "subtraction soup" and "division dumplings" and "eating your words" and a novel use for having the word "but" on the tip of your tongue. This is a book with a big vocabulary, so it will challenge children to enlarge theirs. It's just a fantastic, rich little book, with really cute illustrations by Jules Feiffer who was himself the author of several children's books. Sendak calls them "scratchy pen drawings" and they are, but they capture the mood and the characters so well!

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