Every once in a while, usually while I am at work, I like to reflect upon how the number of books published for kids has increased exponentially in the thirty or so years since I was a young reader. The books I remember reading and being deeply affected by as a child are so few I can list them on one hand: The Westing Game, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth. This year, the fiftieth birthday of The Phantom Tollbooth is being celebrated with an annotated edition by children's literature historian Leonard S Marcus.
But first, for those of you who have never read The Phantom Tollbooth, I am going to be lazy and suggest you read Adam Gopnik's article in The New Yorker, October 17, 2011 (thanks to Anne Boyd for calling this article to my attention.) Gopnik provides a great overview of The Phantom Tollbooth and what makes it unique as well as able to stand the test of time, saying that it is "the closest thing American literature has to an 'Alice in Wonderland; of its own." Gopnik goes on to note that, as with any classic of children's literature, "its real subject is education. The distinctive quality of modern civilization, after all, is that children are subjected to year after year of schooling. In the best-loved kids' books, the choice is often between the true education presented in the book. . . and the false education of the world and school. The child being read to (and the adult reading) is persuaded that self-reliance is a better model for learning than slavish obedience." Gopnik points out that what happens to Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth is in fact the reverse. In The Phantom Tollbooth Milo "doesn't educate himself; he gets educated. his epiphany is that math and reading and even spelling are themselves subjects of adventure, if seen from the right angle. The point of The Phantom Tollbooth is not that there's more to life than school; it's that normal school subjects can be wonderful if you don't have to experience them as normal schooling." If you haven't read The Phantom Tollbooth this might sound incredibly dull and you just might be wondering right now why this book is so beloved. While it is not an easy read and not for every reader, kids (and adults) who do read The Phantom Tollbooth and get it will tell you it is anything but boring. The world that Juster creates is so vivid and ridiculous yet logical that it is impossible to forget. To this day, I can tell you my favorite line in the book: when, in Dictionopolis, Milo gets into a horseless carriage and is instructed to sit quietly because the conveyance "goes without saying." Still cracks me up!
Annotating classic children's literature and publishing it in a big, gorgeous hardcover edition with all sorts of extra artwork has become popular in the last few years. Huckleberry Finn, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Classic Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales have all received the special treatment from WW Norton, as well as a few other classic titles. I have thumbed through a few of these annotated editions and thought I had a pretty good grasp of what it meant to annotate a book until I read Monica Edinger's brief interview with Leonard S Marcus. First off, it is very rare for a book to be annotated while the author and illustrator are still alive. This meant, as Marcus notes, he could go right to Juster and Feiffer for claims of "direct influence" when citing sources for the annotated edition. And what an amazing array of sources of inspiration Marcus accumulates! From Groucho Marx and WC Fields to PT Barnum, Charlotte's Web, Candide, and synesthesia to Gustave Dore, George Grosz, James Thurber and Will Eisner, the citations are endless. And, being that The Phantom Tollbooth is, in part, a book about words and word play, Marcus was inspired to find out "the derivation of expression like 'short shrift' and 'to make ends meet.' Almost as a bonus, Jules Feiffer and Norton Juster were both living in the neighborhood where I now live - Brooklyn Heights, New York - at the time they collaborated on The Phantom Tollbooth. So I got to do some historical time travel to learn quite a lot about what life in the Heights was like half a century ago."
So, if you (or your kids) have a love of words and wordplay, a fascination for numbers or both, The Phantom Tollbooth is indeed the book for you. It makes a fabulous read out loud but, as with all the great books out there, it is savored best when read on one's own. The thrill of discovery and the dawn of understanding are incomparable.