I read The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, for the first time three years ago, absorbing it as an adult and wishing it had been in my life when I was a child. Its wordplay would have delighted me, and its gentle wisdom would have reinforced the life lessons my parents and community were teaching me.
As a parent, I am glad my children have this book in their lives. We read it together three years ago, and last weekend, while driving to the beach, we listened to the new audiobook narrated by Rainn Wilson.
My kids enjoyed listening to the story, which describes the adventures of a child named Milo “who didn’t know what to do with himself–not just sometimes, but always.”
But then Milo, “who has plenty of time,” finds a mysterious package in his bedroom. It’s a turnpike tollbooth! He gets into his toy car, pays the toll, and heads to Dictionopolis, a town in the Kingdom of Wisdom, where Milo learns the importance of appreciating and understanding the world around him.
My children’s favorite part of the story straddles Chapters 10, “A Colorful Symphony,” and 11, “Dischord and Dynne.” Here, Alec Bings, a child who “see[s] through things,” informs Milo that musicians fill the world with color.
It would have been lovely to hear the musicians on the audiobook, but as Rainn Wilson narrates, “you don’t listen to this concert–you watch it. Now pay attention.”
Chroma the Great, the conductor, directs a thousand musicians to play the sunset:
The last colors slowly faded from the western sky, and, as they did, one by one the instruments stopped, until only the bass fiddles, in their somber slow movement, were left to play the night and a single set of silver bells brightened the constellations. The conductor let his arms fall limply at his sides and stood quite still as darkness claimed the forest.
At night, the basses play the darkness. In the morning, the oboes play warm yellow sunshine, and the flutes play rays of light. My kids loved hearing references to the instruments they play.
With the audiobook, I missed Jules Feiffer’s playful illustrations of the musicians and Chroma the Great, but there’s something so lovely about listening to a story. It’s like being a kid again.
However, remembering that I’m a mother listening to an audiobook with my kids, I took the opportunity to point out a few ways The Phantom Tollbooth hasn’t aged well. The book is almost sixty years old.
First, in Chapter 10, while illustrating how size is a matter of perspective, the text uses a term more commonly used in the past that many people with dwarfism find offensive. I would never want my children using that term, and I cringed every time I heard Rainn Wilson say it. I wish the author, editors, and/or publisher had found a substitute for this word for the 50th anniversary edition and the audiobook. (For a more detailed discussion on a similar topic, see More Thoughts on the Censorship Spectrum: Cleansing Racist Themes from Children’s Books).
Second, the Kingdom of Wisdom, which is “advantageously located in the Foothills of Confusion,” has a colonization history that describes the settlers as bringing civilization and wisdom to a land occupied by demons. This is make-believe, but it’s reminiscent of the justifications Europeans used for centuries as they colonized lands that didn’t belong to them.
Third, Milo’s mission is to save two princesses, Rhyme and Reason. It’s a common theme in literature, but it feels antiquated. Girls don’t need boys to save them.
Despite these flaws, The Phantom Tollbooth remains one of my favorite books. Its best parts extol the virtues of attentiveness and curiosity, and its imperfections gave me an opportunity to share with my children my perspective on problematic aspects of the past.