Milo, the protagonist ofThe Phantom Tollbooth, is a thoroughly modern boy. Though only ten years old, he's stricken nearly listless with the disease of our times—ennui, a boredom induced by lack of stimulation or interest. For Milo, everything is a waste of time, especially gaining knowledge.....and tragically, no one has ever told him otherwise.
But one day he gets home from school and finds a strange box in his room. Inside the box is a small car, which he then drives right across the borders of this world and into Dictionopolis, a city in which words are traded and sold and highly valued. It isn't long before Milo sets out on a journey of discovery, accompanied by the Watchdog and the Humbug, and finds the value of learning.
Norton Juster's text is littered with puns, verbal humor, literary allusions, and Jules Feiffer's illustrations. Many have compared the book to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but it's not quite as nonsensical. It's probably more fair to compare The Phantom Tollbooth to C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia in the sense that it's an apologetic, not for Christianity, but for the active pursuit of learning.
There seems to be no end to the imaginative elements of this story. At one point, Milo and his friends meet the DYNNE, a genie-like creature who is noise embodied. Then there's the Mathemagician, an orchestra that brings color to the world rather than music, and an Unwelcoming Committee determined to drive people away from the Castle in the Air.
Christians may balk a bit at the seeming intimation that education is a form of salvation, or at least has salvific properties. But there's no getting around the fact that our minds and imaginations were given to us by God, and that using them often and well is a part of our duty as his people. Juster makes the life of the mind attractive, and for that we thank him.
The fact that he does so in such an out-of-the-ordinary way makes this story even more attractive. The Phantom Tollbooth is rightly considered a modern classic in virtue of its subject matter and zaniness, and due to Juster's vivid style and fine-tuned sense of humor that children and adults alike will appreciate.
A love of learning is one of the best tools a parent can give their child for the business of life, and The Phantom Tollbooth is a great place to start. There is one other reason to read it, though—as David Hume pointed out, one of the best reasons to read a lot of books is to be able to get a lot of jokes. Reading this book will enable your kids to get the right kind of jokes, and that alone is reason enough to give it to them.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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