I was lucky enough to be able to participate in this year's World Book Night, which took place on April 23 (Shakespeare's birthday). Check the link for more detailed information, but basically it's a night when people all over the world, thanks to the generosity of writers and publishers, give away free books. Cool, huh? When you sign up, you get to choose your top three picks of books to give away, and as a children's librarian (and lover of kids' books in general), I of course chose my favorites from the among the children's books on the list. I was delighted to get my first pick: The Phantom Tollbooth. I have very fond memories of reading and rereading this one as a child, so I thought I'd give it another go to refresh my memory.
The book starts out like this:
There was once a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.
When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.
“It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,” he remarked one day as he walked dejectedly home from school. “I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February.” And, since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.
Milo comes home from school one day to find a large toy tollbooth in his room. He has no idea where it came from, but he drives his little toy car through it and finds himself in another world. He meets a literal) watchdog named Tock, and together the two of them have all kinds of adventures. Along the way, Milo learns some important lessons, which at times (rereading it as an adult) border on the preachy side, but when I was a kid I didn't mind it one bit.
It was fun to revisit the land of The Phantom Tollbooth, and to relive the joy and wonder I'd felt as I turned its pages when I was a child. It holds up remarkably well and hardly seemed dated at all, considering it was written over fifty years ago. The illustrations brought back some fond memories as well. I was especially glad I'd chosen this title to give away for World Book Night when the parents' faces lit up, and they'd exclaim to their children that that book had been one of their favorites. I'm glad it's still around!
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster (Random House, 1961)