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.
“I had an ailment called synesthesia,” Juster explained, pronouncing the word carefully. “I could only do numbers by colors.” His mind—in a way that will be familiar to readers of the memoirs of that fellow-synesthete Nabokov—made instant, inescapable associations between a number and a color. “I can still remember a few: 4 was blue, 7 was black, and so the only way I could do math was by associating colors.” As frequently happens with synesthetes, the condition extended to words and images. “One of the things I always did was think literally when I heard words. On the ‘Lone Ranger,’ they would say, ‘Here come the Injuns!’ and I always had an image of engines, of train engines.”
The other shaping experience was listening to the radio. As both artists stress, having a pure stream of sound as your major source of entertainment meant that your mind was already working imaginatively, without your necessarily realizing it. “It’s impossible today!” Feiffer said. “Everything is visual. We had thought balloons in our heads that played jazz riffs off what we read and what we heard, and that’s what led to the imaginative restructuring of reality.”
Juster agreed: “Sometimes I go into schools now and say, Let me start a story. And what you get from the kids is almost exactly what comes out of the TV set. The kids have very few images of their own. We came home from school, listened to hours of fifteen-minute serials, Jack Armstrong and Don Winslow, and it was great.”
Some research actually points to a possible genetic connection between synesthesia and autism. Charlie has always been strongly drawn to colors and shapes and patterns formed by them. By his own preference, he quite avoids the onslaught of visual images that most children today are steeped in, from TV, video games, movies, the internet. He likes to watch a select few videos and quickly says “no” to new ones — these mean new images — but is more flexible and open to new music, to new sounds. Charlie still prefers hear a lot of Disney and children’s music that he has listened to since he was a toddler, but a number of more recent albums — from the Replacements and the Kinks, in particular — are also favorites. On average, Charlie spends far more time listening to music than watching videos.
Juster’s and Feiffer’s comments about sensory stimuli surprised me as The Phantom Tollbooth had seemed to me to lack precisely these, to be more a child’s introduction into ideas and abstract concepts. I’m now intrigued to pick up a copy of the book after three decades.
The best books call for multiple readings and — having been on some travels I had never, ever imagined when I first read a dog-eared copy of The Phantom Tollbooth in a beige-walled classroom in Oakland — who knows what I might learn in joining Milo again on his adventures in the Lands Beyond.
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Photo by Keith Trice