Standing the Test of Time: The Phantom Tollbooth
One of my all time favourite middle grade novels is The Phantom Tollbooth. I probably read this book a dozen times when I was young.
Recently, because Norton Juster was a keynote speaker at the summer SCBWI conference and it was the 50th anniversary of the book (!), I took a look to see if it stood the test of time. And it most certainly does.
It’s a fun coming of age quest story. Wikipedia calls it a modern fairy tale, but I’d call it contemporary or light fantasy. And it’s Juster’s colourful characters and quirky wordplay that make the story truly unique.
It’s about a bored young boy named Milo who receives a magic tollbooth one afternoon and, having nothing better to do, drives through it in his toy car. It transports him to a land called the Kingdom of Wisdom where things have been chaos ever since princesses Rhyme and Reason were banished by their brothers: the kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, who are not speaking to one another over a words vs. numbers dispute. Mile acquires two companions, Tock the watchdog and the Humbug, and goes on a quest to rescue the princesses.
This is a great story for ages 9 and up (younger kids might trip up on some of the vocabulary), boys and girls alike. It’s a great teaching tool because of Norton’s way of making language idioms literal. Like when Milo gets stuck in the Doldrums, has to jump to the island of Conclusion, or confronts the noisy Dynne. The wordplay goes on and on and the message in the end is that life is far from dull.
If you have never read this book, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s also a great book to read with children.