MAKING LITERACY AND NUMERACY COOL FOR KIDS
THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF A BORED SCHOOLBOY WITH TOO MUCH TIME ON HIS HANDS
Genre: Children’s, Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 272 Pages
Date: 3rd March 2008 (First Published 1961)
The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those children’s books that should be one of the defining reads of every bookworm’s childhood; much like The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is. I certainly have fond memories of my first reading of it as a young schoolboy. But whereas C.S. Lewis’ classic is a very easy book to categorise and describe (being an age old tale of good triumphing over evil), Norton Juster’s story almost defies conventional categorisation. It is a story that is as unique as it is bizarre, making it all the more memorable. And as an added bonus, it’s hard to think of another book as likely The Phantom Tollbooth to spark an interest in literacy and numeracy in a young child.
Giving a synopsis of what the story is about would not likely engender much enthusiastic interest in the book. But here is a summary of the plot anyway. A bored young schoolboy called Milo, with little interest in school and studying, returns home from school one afternoon to discover that a build-it-yourself toy tollbooth has been delivered to him. After putting together the mysteriously sent gift, Milo gets into his toy pedal car to play, little suspecting that the tollbooth would magically transport him to the Kingdom Of Wisdom. He subsequently embarks on a bizarre road-trip around this fantasy land to complete a mission that will finally bring to an end a period of turmoil brought about by the disappearance of two princesses.
The above description doesn’t much sound like a recipe for a must read children’s classic. But what makes the book so special is not the plot. It is the clever wordplay and numerical games that the author employs to tell his tale. The narrative is saturated with idioms and puns which Juster inventively utilises, not only to drive the story, but also to provide the basis for the world building and characterisation. And it is this use of clever turns of phrase and figures of speech, more than anything else, that makes The Phantom Tollbooth’s prose such a joy to read. It is unquestionably the book’s defining characteristic, and the reason why it has been (and continues to be) such a popular and highly regarded work, half a century after its first publication.
It would be remiss of this review to not make mention of the book’s illustrations, drawn by Jules Feiffer. They are such an integral part of the reading experience, it is hard to imagine the story being quite as effective without them. The pictures really help to illustrate (no pun intended) just how bizarre and surreal both the characters and the situations that Milo encounters during his strange adventure are.
While The Phantom Tollbooth may lack the good versus evil theme often used in children’s fantasy literature, or the cautionary tales and moral lessons inherent in fairy tales, it perhaps possesses an attribute that such literature may not have: The ability to promote an appreciation for literacy and numeracy in young children. Whether or not it was his intent, Juster certainly succeeds in making learning seem fun and (dare I say it?) cool. So it’s probably not coincidental that Milo begins the book as a boy who has no interest in learning, but by the end has developed an entirely different attitude.
For all the praise that can be lavished upon The Phantom Tollbooth, it is maybe worth noting that the very things that make it such a memorable book could be grounds for some readers to dislike it. The continuous wordplay may start to grate after a while, plus the unconventional formatting of the text for some passages, in certain parts of the book, may be off-putting. But it simply wouldn’t be the same book without these constituents.
In summation, The Phantom Tollbooth is a unique tale of a young boy who comes to appreciate the value of learning, particularly in regard to literacy and numeracy, during a magical road-trip in a bizarre fantasy land in turmoil. It is a book I have no qualms about recommending highly to young children; though there is no reason why adult readers cannot enjoy it also.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.