I’m not sure how old I was the first time I encountered The Phantom Tollbooth, but I do recall that my first exposure was in an anthology in an elementary grade reading class. We read the chapter on the Royal Banquet, where Milo is forced to “eat his words.” It strikes me that this book is likely the first exposure kids have to really understanding figures of speech and the complexity of the English language.
For those who haven’t read The Phantom Tollbooth, well first of all, I’m shocked. You really need to stop what you’re doing and get that taken care of. For most of the readers on this site, you can probably knock it out in an afternoon.
But if you haven’t, the story is about a boy named Milo who is bored, bored, bored by everything! Nothing good ever happens, nothing is ever worth learning. Everything is a waste of time, including school: “I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is, or knowing how to spell February.”
Me quickly Googling map of Ethiopia
One day Milo comes home from another useless day at school to find a mysterious package containing a turnpike tollbooth, a colorful map, a rulebook, and some coins for the toll. Since there is nothing better to do, Milo selects a location on the map, drives through the toll in his toy car, and soon finds himself zipping along a highway in an unfamiliar land.
First of all, can I stop and point out that this kid has an electric car and he’s complaining about this life? Yeah, I’ll bet the insurance on that vehicle is a real bitch, Milo!
Milo: Inventor of the humblebrag
Soon Milo encounters curious characters like Tock the Watchdog, a dog with a clock for a body, and the Humbug, an insect who is always boasting and telling tall tales. Milo visits Dictionopolis, a land ruled by King Azaz the Unabridged. He soon learns that the Kingdom of Wisdom has been divided into two feuding sectors: Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, the latter being ruled by the Mathemagician. The two rulers fought over which was more important, words or numbers, and when the wise princesses Rhyme and Reason decreed that both were equally important, the rulers banished the pair, and everything went downhill from there.
If Norton Juster could have seen into the future, he wouldn’t have edited out the
chapter where the Kingdom’s women marched on the capital in protest.
Milo has many strange adventures along the way which seem to turn logic on its head. In Dictionopolis, he goes to the marketplace, where people can purchase words. A scuffle between the Humbug and the Spelling Bee upsets the merchants’ carts and jumbles all the words together, causing people to spout nonsense sentences like “Done what you’ve looked!” and “Do going to what we are!”
Suddenly Herman Cain’s political campaign makes sense!
Milo, Tock, and the Humbug set out on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason and return them to the Kingdom of Wisdom. They take an accidental detour to the Island of Conclusions, which can only be got to by jumping: “It’s really quite simple, every time you decide something without a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not” a local tells them. In Digitopolis, Milo and friends learn about the importance of numbers and have a brush with the concept of infinity. On their way to the Castle in the Air, where the princesses reside, they encounter demons, the most terrible of which is the Terrible Trivium, who gives them pointless tasks that will take all their time and never really accomplish anything. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.. . .” Haha. Stupid kids, wasting time like. . .
In the end, Milo, Tock, and Humbug bring Rhyme and Reason back to the Kingdom of Wisdom and order is restored. Milo returns home, where he discovers there is so much to do in his own world: books to be read, inventions to build, music to play. . .a world full of possibliities.
The Phantom Tollbooth is a delightful read for kids and adults. Published in 1961, the lessons are universal and lasting. If I had one gripe, it would be that I wanted to see more girls in the story, but I understand that’s not a totally fair complaint about a book that’s 56 years old. To be fair, Rhyme and Reason are the keys to wisdom, order, and happiness in this world; still, I cringed every time there was talk of them being “rescued” by a small boy, a clock, and an insect. If they were ever to do a Phantom Tollbooth reboot, I might like to see the characters of the princesses drawn with a little more edge.
Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum, bitches!