The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) – Norton Juster

Title:The Phantom Tollbooth
Author:Norton Juster
Date published:1961
Publishers:Harper Collins (2008)
Star rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I have so many wonderful memories attached to my primary school library – the smell and the quiet and the excitement I used to feel when I walked through the doors knowing I was going to walk out of there with something special to take home in my book bag. I seem to have very clear memories of checking The Phantom Tollbooth out more than once. I remember the dark blue cover and the picture of the little boy Milo and a tollbooth on the cover. I remember the plastic wrap that library books were covered in, and the smell….Oh that glorious smell of a library book. Nothing beats that smell.

I was struggling to sleep the other night and much like a lot of people right now I was looking for something that would comfort me. What better way to ease the weary mind than to read something familiar and something that I know brought me so much joy? I flicked through my shelves and suddenly remembered my copy of a book I had been searching for for years and had finally found in an Oxfam shop during a trip to Dublin last year. A childhood favorite that I had postponed buying for years because I was looking for a particular edition – the same edition I remember borrowing from the library. I never did find one just like it but after rereading this classic children’s book I am inclined to admit that I should have done this years ago.

Milo is a little boy who thinks “everything is a waste of time”. Nothing seems to excite or inspire him, not even his books or toys. One day he walks into his bedroom and discovers a mysterious gift of a tollbooth that claims to be: For Use By Those Who Have Never Traveled In Lands Beyond. There is a map, some instructions and a few coins to operate the tollbooth. With nothing else to do Milo gets into his little car, passes a coin into the tollbooth and drives off (from his bedroom) and on towards an adventure that is not like any other adventure.

He finds himself in a world that is no longer that of his bedroom and all that is familiar. He will soon meet a dog called Tock with a huge clock for a belly, and a well-dressed Humbug, who will both befriend Milo and agree to join him on his adventures. He will be sent on a mission to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason who were once banished to the Castle in the Air a long time ago by their brothers the King Azaz of Dictionopolis and the great Mathemagician of Digitopolis. Since the brothers fought many years ago over whether letters or numbers were more important, and the sisters were banished because they claimed both were just important as the other, chaos had ensued. Milo is there to help restore the balance in a seemingly very unbalanced world. In order to get to Rhyme and Reason though Milo and his new friends must travel through places such the Mountains of Ignorance, the Foothills of Confusion, an island called Conclusions and a dark place known only as The Doldrums.

They will meet an eclectic assortment of characters whose job it will sometimes seem is to challenge Milo and keep him from reaching his destination. Alec is a boy who appears to float in mid-air but is simply from a place where people grow downwards instead of upwards in order that they should always have the same perspective. Chroma is the conductor of a magnificent orchestra, an orchestra who are responsible for creating the dawn and the twilight and the beautiful sunsets we see everyday simply by playing their instruments. Kakophonous A. Discord, Doctor of Dissonance who creates sounds and The Soundkeeper who hoards them are as different as two characters could possibly be as one loves the sound of a bomb blast as much as the other relishes silence.

As Milo travels through these impossibly strange lands he is beginning to realize just how important learning really is. His imagination being the most powerful thing a little boy has is coupled with the ability to stand up for your friends, be courageous and be kind to those around you. In order to restore balance in a very chaotic world Milo is not the reluctant hero at all, but rather embraces the journey he finds himself on. The world that Norton Juster created is filled with puns and wordplay and characters and places that are completely impossible. In Milo’s imagination and the world of The Phantom Tollbooth everything is possible and it is this simple fact that makes this novel so universal and so worthy of every decade.

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