Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth
by Norton Juster
Harper Children's Audio, 2008 (originally published in 1961)
4 discs, unabridged

When I saw this audiobook was narrated by David Hyde Pierce, I had reservations. I wasn't sure how I felt about Niles Crane reading to me for the entire length of a book I'd been looking forward to for ages. I shouldn't have worried. This was one of the most enjoyable audiobooks I've run across ever, and Pierce can take a fair chunk of the credit for that. He is a wonderful reader.

The narration makes it, but the book itself is just fantastic too. It is silly but substantive, clever without being obnoxious about it, incredibly imaginative, strangely relevant, and often wise. Also, puns. Many, many puns. The wordplay is everywhere.

Milo is bored. He is a boy for whom life holds no joy: he is not interested in anything, he is always in a hurry, and he is never satisfied. So when a mysterious purple tollbooth shows up in his bedroom one day, the only reason he attempts to use it at all is because there is simply nothing better to do. But the tollbooth is no ordinary toy, and Milo is transported to a world where things start to interest him in spite of himself. This is the Kingdom of Wisdom. He is caught in the Doldrums, visits Dictionopolis and meets King Azaz the Unabridged, makes his way through the Forest of Sight and the Valley of Sound, encounters the Mathemagician in Digitopolis, and finally takes on the Mountains of Ignorance. For all is not well in the Kingdom of Wisdom: a horrible mistake was made, and the princesses Rhyme and Reason have been banished, and everyone is counting on Milo to bring them back.

Most criticisms I have seen of the book lie in the fact that it is too clever for its own good; the words are too long, the concepts too difficult, for children to understand. These criticisms started when Juster released the book back in 1961 and they continue today. I think this is incredibly unfair. Not to the book, because it is indeed full of delightful words and challenging concepts, but to the children whose parents (or teachers, or librarians) decide not to attempt it because they think it will be too hard. This is a book that has many charms, and if a child doesn't get all the jokes, they'll still enjoy the adventure story. And frankly, most children I know love a good joke. (And lots of bad ones, too, and lots of things that aren't really jokes at all...) And many of them have no trouble taking things literally, as Juster often does with his idioms (how do you get to the Island of Conclusions? You jump there, of course.) So what if they don't pick up on everything the first time through. Let them read it again. This book has staying power. My suspicion is that they will want to read it again. And they will get more out of it the second time through. And yet more the third time.

I say this because I was actually scared off reading this with my parent-child book club for a couple of years because of the suggestion it might be too hard for kids to enjoy. What a shame, because there are kids who have moved on from the group and won't be reading this with me now, and I regret that. Checking in with the kids who still come to book club, all of them adore it so far. None of the parents in the group were more than passingly familiar with the book either, and certainly hadn't read it. Those I have talked to are loving it, too. I should know better than to fear the appropriateness of a book because it is "difficult." I should trust my instincts, but I should also trust the kids themselves.

My criticism doesn't lie with the supposed difficulty of the book. My criticism lies in the fact that there is a Message, and very occasionally the plot serves the Message rather than the Message coming out of the plot organically. There were moments when it was clear that Learning is Good and Fun and You Should Do It Even If You're Not Sure Why You're Doing It Right Now, and Also Pay Attention Kid. It was just that I was enjoying David Hyde Pierce's reading so much and the inventiveness of the plot and world so much that I didn't much care about being Messaged At. The other important point here is that the book isn't trying to be coy; it knows it has a Message. It's pretty clear on that. The major win is that it also tries hard to be an enjoyable story, and succeeds 99.5% of the time. 

This is a book I will buy so that I have it lying around. I will reread it myself (and I suspect reading will be a different, but still very enjoyable, experience, not least because I missed out on Jules Feiffer's illustrations) and I look forward to reading it with others, too, and reveling in the sheer silly joy of the English language.


Bookwyrme said...

My parents used to read this one out loud to me. It's one of my "must have" books. You're making me think it's time I read it again.

Unknown said...

I have no idea how my parents missed this one; I think my father would love it. It's funny, a lot of people have read it, but those that haven't don't seem to know of it at all, in my admittedly small survey.