The Book That Made Me a Writer

Wednesday 8 January 2014 by

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster, Book, Reading,

When I was little I loved bedtime because that meant story time and at story time there was one book that I had my mother read to me repeatedly (so many times in fact that I can easily quote sections) as I loved it so much. That book was Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.

Published in 1961 it tells the story of a bored and listless boy named Milo who one day returns home from school to find a package from an unknown sender containing a turnpike tollbooth. Feeling he has nothing better to do, he goes through the tollbooth and is taken on an adventure to The Lands Beyond. There he meets a watchdog (literally) who takes him on a journey through the Kingdom of Wisdom which has been divided by two quarrelling brothers, Azaz and the Mathemagician, into Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. Azaz believes words to be more important and the Mathemagician believes numbers to be more important. In order to restore peace, Milo must rescue the banished princesses of Rhyme and Reason.

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster, Book, Watchdog, Picture

What follows is a great adventure story filled with quirky characters, mishaps and demons dwelling in the Mountains of Ignorance. It may be a story about the importance of knowledge and the value of time but it at no point feels condescending or like someone is trying to give you lessons, it’s simply a lot of fun and filled with humour. As a child I loved the journey it took me on, the fact that it made learning fun and made me feel clever. One of my favourite moments was Milo’s encounter with the Whether Man whom Milo mistakes for a weather man. I remember feeling so pleased with myself (brainy too) when I realised it was whether not weather. (As it was being read aloud I didn’t see the word.) I also particularly enjoyed the city officials of Dictionopolis who always gave alternative words of the same meaning whenever they spoke. For example; hello, greetings, salutations etc.

Juster never appears to try to simplify the language for children and even uses some more complex words for young children, “arbitration” for example. I like to think that he did this so children would ask their parents for the meaning and create discussion while they adventured through the story together. It also feels that he is never trying to say that one has to be an academic or cleverer than anyone else, simply that knowledge and learning should be valued and can broaden your horizons.

I think it’s wonderful that a book can make learning so fun and truly feel my love of words (Dictionopolis was definitely my favourite) and the care I take to pick mine stemmed from The Phantom Tollbooth. I have always loved this book and find it just as enjoyable as an adult reader. I don’t know where my mum came across this book but I am thoroughly glad she did and can’t recommend it highly enough.

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