“There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always.”
So begins The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. As I was perusing various book recommendation lists for Simon’s book boxes, this one came up as a classic for boys his age. I had never heard of it, but it ended up making the “final cut,” and we purchased it prior to his birthday. I previewed it, and this time I was pleasantly surprised!
In brief, this is the fantastical story of a boy named Milo who, as the quote above suggests, was fairly bored with life. Unmotivated and uninterested, he seems to have given up on the usefulness of knowledge and come to believe that the world is grey and pointless.
Enter the tollbooth. This mysterious portal appears in Milo’s bedroom and whisks him away on an adventure meant to open his eyes to the wonders and mysteries of life. From the start, his journey reminded me of Pilgrim’s Progress (though without a spiritual theme). Milo wanders through the The Doldrums and into a city – Dictionopolis – entirely focused on the importance of words. He travels through the Forest of Sight and the Valley of Sound, into Digitopolis (the bitter enemy of its sister city), and finally into the Mountains of Ignorance where he must escape various demons in order to free the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. All the while his eyes are being opened to the captivating nature of life and the world around him.
This is a very clever book. Milo is constantly having interactions intended to point out characteristics of wise living that – though I don’t know that Norton had anything like Biblical Wisdom in mind – certainly can be used to further that aim. For example, when Milo is stuck in the doldrums (a place of mindless inactivity from which he doesn’t know how to escape), a dog he’s met asks:
“I suppose you know why you got stuck.”
“I guess I just wasn’t thinking,” said Milo.
“PRECISELY,” shouted the dog…. “Now you know what you must do.”
And after meeting a bird, the Everpresent Wordsnatch, who is constantly misinterpreting his words, Milo learns that the creature lives in a place called “Context.”
“Don’t you think you should be getting back?” suggested the bug [one of Milo’s companions], holding one arm up in front of him.
“What a horrible thought.” The bird shuddered. “It’s such an unpleasant place that I spend almost all my time out of it.”
Ha! There are some politicians who could learn a bit from this interaction!
Throughout the story, there are many similar examples and lots of interesting characters, but I’ll let you discover the rest of them for yourself. In all, I found The Phantom Tollbooth to be an entertaining read and one that I would certainly benefit from if I ever find time to give it a second go-around. Simon recently enjoyed a children’s version of Pilgrim’s Progress so I’m hoping he’ll like this one as well.
|FYI: Milo encounters lots of “demons” in the Mountains of Ignorance, but they don’t seem to have any obvious connection to Biblical demons.
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