IN AN AUGUST 2004 ARTICLE for the New York Times entitled "Why Teachers Love Depressing Books," writer and critic Laura Miller wrote, "I decided that there were two types of children's books: call it Little Women versus Phantom Tollbooth. The first type was usually foisted on you by nostalgic grown-ups. These were books populated by snivelers and goody-two-shoes ... The people in the other kind of book, however, were entirely different. They had adventures."
This October marked the 50th anniversary of Norton Juster's story about a little boy named Milo, who is rescued from disenchantment by a magic tollbooth that transports him in his little car to the kingdom of Wisdom. There he meets Azaz the Unabridged, king of Dictionopolis, and the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis, who charge him with the daunting task of rescuing the exiled Princesses Rhyme and Reason. Milo, a child who "didn't know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always," rises to the challenge, aided by his friends, the Watchdog Tock (who literally has a clock in his side) and the foolish, beetle-like Humbug. With buoyant, humorous drawings from artist Jules Feiffer, The Phantom Tollbooth is the kind of book you want to start over as soon as you finish.
Tollbooth didn't win the big one (the John Newbery Medal), but it is a "classic" nonetheless. Critics have compared it to works as varied as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Jonathan Swift'sGulliver's Travels, Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, and Lewis Carroll's Alice stories. In November 1962, the Times Literary Supplement said: "The Phantom Tollbooth is something every adult seems sure will turn into a modern Alice."
As a child, I dutifully read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Johanna Spyri's Heidi, and other books in the "snivelers and goody-two-shoes" tradition. But Tollbooth, I raced through. Reading it as an adult is both the same and different; a contradiction Canby, a character who is both graceful and clumsy as can be, would likely appreciate. I still laugh at all the same parts, like when the Whether Man says, "If you happen to find my way, please return it." I still wish I had a dog like Tock the Watchdog, and I completely relate to Milo's initial malaise. When we are young we hate seemingly meaningless rituals (dentist appointments, standardized tests), and only because we are forced to do accept the banality and boredom of routines, commutes, and filling out tax forms as adults.
The first time I read The Phantom Tollbooth I wanted to be friends with Milo so he would give me a ride in his electric automobile, but if I were to meet him today, I would pat him on the back and say, "Kid, I'd tell you the ennui disappears, but that would be a lie." Adults not only take short trips to the "Doldrums," they make entire vacations out of existential despair. The adventure in Tollbooth doesn't change; it's the meaning we find in it that evolves.
Some critics wondered if this quirky tome was best suited to gifted children or adults. Library Journal was one of those hesitant publications, writing in January 1962: "The ironies, the subtle play on words will be completely lost on all but the...