Chosen By: Ally Nicholl
Bullseye Books, 1988
I discovered The Phantom Tollbooth at the appropriate age and in the usual way. I was about nine, and it was a battered old copy I came across in the schoolroom shelves during a period of silent reading (a part of the curriculum unofficially known as â€˜teacher needs to get the marking done or sheâ€™ll be taking it homeâ€™).
Choosing a book for silent reading was a serious business. Once I made my selection I was stuck with it until the book review at the end, and the week before Iâ€™d suffered through a dismal tale about a young girlâ€™s friendship with a seal so I was desperately in need of something fun. Iâ€™d never heard of The Phantom Tollbooth, but it promised fantastical adventures and had a funny dog on the cover.
My subsequent review, which was meant to be a paragraph saying â€˜I liked/didnâ€™t like this book becauseâ€™, ended up more like a dissertation. I clearly felt I couldnâ€™t convey just how awesome the book was without retelling the whole story in a garbled gush. It had everything â€“ a daring quest, a likeable hero I could relate to, endless surprises, quirky humour and edible words. I wanted to be Milo, to find a mysterious tollbooth in my bedroom and go for a drive through a thrilling magical land in my own car. I wanted to conduct Chromaâ€™s orchestra as it played the colours of the sunrise, and wave to the cheering crowds after I helped restore the princesses Rhyme and Reason to the Kingdom of Wisdom. No reading period ever went by so fast.
The book and I kept in regular contact in the months and years that followed. I borrowed it frequently from the school library until I got my own copy, and it became one of those stories I could always turn to if I needed an escape. While most of the books I liked as a kid began to drift towards the basement during my teens, The Phantom Tollbooth stayed put. And now here I am, twenty-one years older and still smitten.
Itâ€™s hard not to be won over by a story so full of warmth and wit. I was hooked from the moment Milo and Tock pull up at the gates to the city of Dictionopolis and the gateman finds them a reason for visiting (â€œWHY NOT?â€) as they forgot to bring one with them. The Dictionopolis chapters have always been among my favourites, though I remember they were torture to read in school with an hour till the lunch bell â€“ not just the eat-your-words banquet scene but also the word market, when Milo bites into a letter at the DIY stall and finds it â€œsweet and delicious â€“ just the way youâ€™d expect an A to tasteâ€. He samples an I which turns out to be â€œicy and refreshingâ€, and Tock tries a â€œcrisp, crunchy Câ€. Even Sesame Street never made letters this appealing.
Juster has often been praised for Tollboothâ€™s inspired wordplay, and rightly so. Iâ€™m as wary of puns as the next guy, but here they sparkle, from the wooden wagon in Dictionopolis (â€œâ€˜Be very quiet,â€™ advised the Duke, â€˜for it goes without sayingâ€™â€) to the use of the phrase â€˜time fliesâ€™ as a literal means of escape. Equally wonderful are all the little details, like the bit in the Digitopolis number mines when Milo drops a freshly-excavated number and the Mathemagician tells him not to worry as â€œâ€˜we use the broken ones for fractionsâ€™â€, or in the Soundkeeperâ€™s fortress where handclaps manifest as crisp white sheets of paper, and striking a bass drum with a padded stick produces large fluffy cotton balls.
Whenever I read the book these days, one thing that always strikes me is how relevant it still is to my life. As a boy I found the Terrible Trivium (â€œdemon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habitâ€) quite scary, with his blank face and deceptive gentlemanly charm as he tempts our heroes into easy but useless work designed to distract them from achieving their real goals. As a grown-up I have to deal with him every day. Even as I write this heâ€™s leaning against a nearby tree, asking if Iâ€™d be so kind as to move his sand collection from one pile to another and holding out a pair of tweezers.
Ultimately the story is about the achievement of wisdom and the obstacles that can get in the way of achieving it. Weâ€™ve all come across the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, who â€œinvariably leaped before he looked and never cared where he was going as long as he knew why he shouldnâ€™t have gone to where heâ€™d beenâ€ and the Triple Demons of Compromise, who â€œmoved in ominous circles … And since they always settled their differences by doing what none of them really wanted, they rarely got anywhere at all â€“ and neither did anyone they met.â€ The foul, dark things that inhabit the wastelands of Ignorance are creatures we face throughout our lives, and rescuing Rhyme and Reason is a worthwhile quest at any age.
The last time I read The Phantom Tollbooth was a few weeks ago in preparation for this review, and at the time I happened to be in a similar mood to the one Miloâ€™s in at the start of the book â€“ a listless, whatâ€™s-the-point-in-anything-anyway sort of mood. By the end I felt like Iâ€™d gone through the same transformation Milo does. I love that it still has that uncanny ability to inspire me out of my own doldrums. Itâ€™s a call to arms against laziness, procrastination, wilful ignorance and dozens of other things Iâ€™m guilty of all the time. Itâ€™s also a warm, funny, charming and inventive story that fully deserves its â€˜instant classicâ€™ status. I canâ€™t quit it, and I wouldnâ€™t want to.
Read Juster’s take on creating this “accidental masterpiece”Â here.
Have a book that you just can’t quit? Â Send it to Amye (at) Pank Magazine (dot) com.