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60 years ago, the recently deceased Norton Juster published the children’s fantasy novel The Phantom Tollbooth, probably never imagining that it would still be popular 60 years later, or that it would become a children’s classic. 

 

I first met Milo and company when I was 9-years-old and in 4th grade. My teacher was a big believer in reading novels aloud, and she started reading us Juster’s book. I’ve always loved reading, but of all the books I’ve ever read or had read to me, this one is not only my favourite children’s book, but my favourite book of all time, and one which I’ve revisited several times as an adult.

 

phantom tollbooth cover / a drawing of milo and a dog creature with a clock imbedded in its side, on a blue fieldIf you’re not familiar with the story, it begins with a bored little boy named Milo, who despite having a room full of toys and games, is bored. Sounds like a familiar scenario right? One day, a mysterious package arrives in his room. He has no idea where it came from or who sent it, but he decides to open it. Inside the package is a tollbooth and a map of the Lands Beyond, including the Kingdom of Wisdom. Lacking anything else to do, he decides to try it out.

 

After going through the tollbooth, Milo finds himself on a road that is decidedly not his apartment, and this is where his adventure begins. As he travels through Wisdom, Milo learns the history of the kingdom, and is set on an important quest. You see, once upon a time, the Kingdom was ruled by two brothers. One was a word wizard, the other a math magician. They also had two sisters named Rhyme and Reason who kept balance in the kingdom.

 

Let’s just say that the brothers had some issues sharing power, each thinking that they were the more important. In an attempt to settle their quarrel once and for all, they called upon their sisters to tell them whether numbers or letters were the more important. The sisters ruled that both were equally important, enraging the brothers who banished them to the Castle in the Air, and split the kingdom in two- Dictionopolis and Digitopolis.

 

Now if it were up to Milo, who seldom stayed interested in anything for long, he’d probably have just gone home and abandoned the Tollbooth to a corner with his other toys. Instead, however, King Azas the Unabridged (can you guess which kingdom he rules over?) tricks Milo into accepting a quest to rescue the princesses and restore rhyme and reason to the kingdom (literally and figuratively).

 

Throughout his journey, Milo travels to the land of Expectations which is literally whatever you expect it to be, gets stuck in the Doldrums which is about as dull and drab as you’d imagine, visits a word market where words and letters are sold, and attends a banquet where guests literally eat their words.

 

He also meets a number of colourful characters such as the Whether Man who tells him whether there will be whether instead of what the weather will be, the Which Witch known as Faintly Macabre, a spelling bee, and the "watch" dog named Tock (who actually goes tick) whose job it is to keep people from killing time, and a 12-sided creature called Dodecahedron to name a few.

 

Once his quest is complete, Milo is returned home. He immediately makes plans to return the next day after school, but discovers that the Tollbooth is a lot like Mary Poppins, and only goes where it’s needed. While he’s mildly disappointed by this, he also looks at his own world with fresh eyes and realizes that he has lots to do right there.

 

As a kid, I loved the adventure, the fantasy world, and the strange characters. By that point I was well into books by Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis, and I’d gone down the Rabbit hole and into Oz, but this was something entirely different. I’m not sure if I fully understood the deeper messages of the book when I was 9, but the subtlety, along with the word play, is what makes it brilliant.

 

We can all relate to Milo, and kids aren’t the only ones who have looked around at all of their stuff and still complained of having nothing to do. Milo also learns that memorization (which he associates with education) is not the same as learning, and that law isn’t the same as justice. He learns to think in the abstract, the danger of jumping to conclusions, not to accept conformity, and to appreciate the journey and not focus solely on getting to where he’s trying to go.

 

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the book comes when Milo learns that the quest was supposed to be impossible. He was able to succeed because he believed in what was possible and not what wasn’t, and that’s something we can all do well to remember. 

 

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Happy Reading!

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