2021 marks the 60th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, but also sadly, the ingenious author’s death. Juster had a long life and bequeathed us this uniquely marvellous and clever book, the revisiting of which has confirmed my long held belief that it’s nothing short of a masterpiece. It tells the story of perennially bored Milo, who is gifted a coin-operated tollbooth by a mysterious benefactor. It is purple, the colour of mystery, and on the other side of its turnpike lies adventure, magic, and the road to some much-needed enlightenment.
Suffering from a hefty dose of ennui, Milo is weary of everyday life. Nothing interests him, including his home full of books and toys. Even the sudden appearance in his bedroom of an actual real-life tollbooth elicits no more excitement than the thought that using it may make his afternoon a little less dull.
Popping a coin into the slot, Milo passes through into a Wizard of Oz style technicolour world of brightness, where the very flowers shine as if polished. He has unwittingly entered a magical kingdom, one riven by war between the city of words (Dictionopolis) whose ruler believes that words are far superior to numbers, and the city of numbers (Digitopolis) whose elders contest that numbers are much more important. It will fall to Milo to find a peaceable solution, while in the meantime undergoing a much needed personality resuscitation.
We join Milo on a gleefully absurd and brain-stretching journey as a world of curiosities opens up. A book of linguistic gymnastics, with clever wordplay and allegorical storytelling, each step of Milo’s journey reveals another of life’s wonders, be it numerical, wordy, or the joys of colour and sound.
Juster’s mission to help Milo banish the boredom that has defined his days is one of energising brilliance, confirming the great Maurice Sendak’s quote that The Phantom Tollbooth ‘is concerned with the awakening of the lazy mind.’
A wondrous achievement.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is published by Harper Collins Childrens Books, 272 pages.