Let me begin by saying how pleased I am to see so many reviews for this book. I had been under the impression (an impression I now see was thankfully false) that "The Phantom Tollbooth" had fallen into relative obscurity in the last 20 years or so. I'm basing this impression on the fact that you just don't hear anybody mention it anymore. Not librarians or booksellers or teachers or anybody. You don't read current criticism of the book. There aren't huge theses based on its plot or reasonings. And yet... It is a great story with great writing, a lovely (if sometimes overdone) plot, and a merry cast of characters. Accompanied by the delicate illustrations of one Jules Feiffer, the book deserves to be remembered for all time. Hopefully, it will be.
We follow the adventures of Milo in this story. Milo is ennui incarnate. Nothing interests the boy and he has a very difficult time seeing the point in anything at all. One day Milo walks into his room with the plan of finding disinterest there and finds instead that he has been given a large present. It is, according to an accompanying note, one genuine turnpike toolbooth. After assembling the creation, Milo decides to play with it for a little while. He hops into his electric car (possibly the number one toy most desired by children reading this tale), plops some money into the toolbooth, and finds himself in a completely different, and oddly unnamed, new land. It is there that Milo meets and befriends a variety of different creatures and beings. Ultimately, the boy is sent on a journey to locate the princesses Rhyme and Reason from their imprisonment in the sky.
But the brunt of the book, and the parts that most people remember, are the warlike words between the king of Dictionopolis and the Wizard of Digitopolis. In fact, all that I could remember about this book (years after reading it and moments before rereading it) was that the debate was the question of which was more important; words or numbers? Being an English major I'd probably throw my cap in with the former, but, as the princesses Rhyme and Reason make clear, the two are of equal value. The book's plot is not a particularly new one. Anybody familiar with any basic quest story, be it "Alice In Wonderland" (to which this has many similarities), "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" or even "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" will recognize this book's form. What sets it apart from the rest is not only the world in which Milo finds himself abroad, but the character of Milo himself. Here is a boy with a serious deficiency. He is Maurice Sendak's "Pierre" and he simply does not care. By meeting the residents of a world of everything from words and numbers to colors and sounds, Milo comes to understand that the more one learns, the farther one can travel.
Filled with sly puns and clever ideas the book is a real delight. The king of Dictionopolis is named Azaz. There is a boy who is only .58 of a person and who patiently explains that in his land every family has 2.58 children. He is simply that .58. Things like that. A lot of this books sails swimmingly over the heads of children, while a couple other moments sail swimmingly over the heads of most adults. It's worth it to pay attention to Juster's writing too. Though prone to silliness, the author is equally comfortable spouting text like, "Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn?...Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven't the answer to a question you've been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause in a roomful of people when someone is just about to speak, or most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you're all alone in the whole house?" I love passages like this. Juster is the rare author that can make you laugh and then pause for thought within a scant two or three sentences.
As I said at the beginning, in spite of all the good reviews this book has received, I still feel that, "The Phantom Toolbooth" is unappreciated in this day and age. Where's its movie? Its official fan club? Its annotated editions? Alas, I feel we'll have to wait until the novel receives the acclaim of which it is utterly and entirely deserving. Until it does, let's just sit back in a comfy chair and glow in the inviting warmth of a book that finally gives full attention to the inner lives of sounds, vowels, and computations.