I was in the sixth grade in Oakland public schools when I read The Phantom Tollbooth, Norman Juster’s pun-filled narrative about a bored, doleful-eyed boy named Milo and his adventures in the Lands Beyond to reunite the sundered kingdoms of Dictionopolis, ruled by Azaz the Unabridged, and Digitopolis, ruled by his brother the Mathemagician, by setting the banished princesses, Rhyme and Reason, free. It was the first time I had read a book that wasn’t just a matter of the story, of the plot, like all those Little House on the Prairie books my sister and I had read over and over again.
The Phantom Tollbooth was a book whose author clearly paid as much attention to words and their sounds and meanings. Mr. Winston, my teacher, reinforced this point by having us all participate in a weekly “word market” as a way to build vocabulary. I was also intrigued by the book’s curious line drawings by Jules Feiffer; years later, I was pleasantly surprised on finding his cartoons in the Village Voice. I still remember the Lethargerians, the Whether Man and, of course, Tock, an actual watchdog.
Some have dismissed The Phantom Tollbooth as a book of puns and cheap word tricks with a plot of vignettes based on these. The book made a huge impression on me with its plays on language and presentation of philosophical ideas in quirky characters and Feiffer’s images — how could a simple line drawing have so much character? — but, I admit, was not one of my sentimental favorites, not the sort of book I read and reread like Watership Down or a book of Greek myths. The Phantom Tollbooth was fascinating because (not that I realized it when I was twelve years old) it stoked the intellect and made me think.
It was certainly a book I looked forward to sharing with my son Charlie when he was born 14 1/2 years ago. But language and speaking have proved to be longstanding areas of extreme challenge for Charlie, who’s autistic and has a severe speech and communication disability and whose reading ability involves recognizing a few, a very few, words. The clever double-entendres and satire of The Phantom Tollbooth are just the sort of linguistic and literary devices that hold little interest for Charlie.
A celebration of the novel on its 50th anniversary by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker includes an interview with both Norman Juster and Jules Feiffer and offers some new insights into the creation of this curious children’s book. Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth just after he had been discharged from the Navy, while working as an architect. Gopnik also offers some revelations that connect Juster’s and Feiffer’s creative process to… Charlie.
For all the wordiness of The Phantom Tollbooth, Juster talks about certain sensory experiences in childhood that helped to shape the book. Unusual experiences with sensory phenomena are something that Charlie — and many others on the autism spectrum including Daniel Tammet, author of Born on a Blue Day — have; the other (also shared by Feiffer) was listening to the radio.
Photo by Keith Trice
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