The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster

ImageΒ Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth. New York: Random House, 1996. (The book was originally published in 1961.)

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Put a gun to my head, and ask me to name my favorite book when I was a child. This one would probably be it. I’ve actually now read it three times as an adult (it seems I read it about every ten years or so). That’s a real testament to long-lasting appeal. There are no other childrens’ books that I’ve read three times as an adult (barring picture books read to nieces and other dear children, of course). Each time I read it as an adult, I’m amazed that, as a child, I could have understood all the word play and games that seem to flow effortlessly from Juster’s pen (one of my all-time favorites is the Island of Conclusions — our trusty characters reach it, of course, by jumping there) while he relates the magical adventures of the boy Milo, Tock (the watchdog, who is often winding the watch on his back), and the Humbug, all three of whom find themselves on a quest in the Kingdom of Wisdom to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason.

I’ve decided I must not have understood all the word play. Much of Juster’s book is beyond most children, but it doesn’t matter. Like truly good children’s movies (or Bugs Bunny cartoons), there’s plenty here to capture a child’s imagination, while subtle jokes work for adult readers. Children will love the adventure (even, if, like me, they grew up in North Carolina, where there are no toll booths. I had, on our family travels, seen toll booths, of course, by the time I first read the book, but I didn’t know that’s what they were called. I was far more familiar with phone booths — especially the red English kind — so I just substituted those in my imagination. Somehow, it worked).

If you’ve never read the book, please don’t go and read all the critical acclaim that’s been heaped on it over the years or the comparisons to other classic works of children’s literature. If you want to experience its magic, the best thing to do is just to pick it up and read it, having no idea what’s in store for you. It’s a book that deserves to stand on its own, with no comparisons whatsoever.

I will say that there’s something about the book that makes it perfect for an election year. The characters whom our friends meet, the lessons they learn, and the wisdom they gain are all things we voters might find very familiar while navigating our own Kingdoms of Politicians. I don’t know about you, but I’d love to sit down to a banquet at which political candidates all truly have to eat their own words — might make them more quick to think and less quick to talk.

In times past, I’ve been sad when this book ended. I guess I’m getting more philosophical with age. I didn’t find it sad this time. In fact, it ends just as it should. What more can one ask of a. perfect. children’s. book?