100 Chapter Books Project: The Phantom Tollbooth

phantomtollboothI’ll just come right out and say that The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster deserves to be higher than number 21 on the Top 100 Chapter Books list. It’s in my top ten of all chapter books and everyone who has read it seems to have fond memories of it.

What it’s about: Milo is bored and disinterested in life. One day, he gets home from school and finds a large box waiting for him. Inside the box are the makings of a tollbooth and, when he drives his toy car through the booth, he finds himself in another land. This land is the home of the essence of words and numbers and sounds and colors. And in this land, in the company of Tock the watchdog and the Humbug, Milo just might discover the beauty and wonder in even the basic elements of our world.

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Age level: Grade 4-6+

Best part:The beginning of the story –

“There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself–not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him–least of all the things that should have.

‘It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,’ he remarked one day as he walked dejectedly home from school. ‘I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February.’ And, since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.”

This is such a perfect description of the uneducated malaise of youth.

Other best part: The end of the story –

“And yet, even as he thought of all these things, he noticed somehow that the sky was a lovely shade of blue and that one cloud had the shape of a sailing ship. The tips of the trees held pale, young buds and the leaves were a rich deep green. Outside the window, there was so much to see, and hear, and touch–walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden. There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day.

And in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know–music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real. His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new–and worth trying.”

And this is such a perfect description of the wonder and possibility of life.

Verdict: Buy

When I pulled this book out, my husband said “ooh, I love that book. I remember when …” He must have read the book almost thirty years ago and yet it has stayed with him all of this time. I too vividly remember reading it in the 6th grade, being interested in and excited by unexpected ideas. When Z and I read the book together last year, he loved it as well.

This comes from Maurice Sendak’s introduction to the book –

“Rereading it now …, I am touched all over again by the confidence, certainty, and radiance of a book that knew it had to exist. It provides the same shock of recognition as it did then–the same excitement and sheer delight in glorious lunatic linguistic acrobatics. It is also prophetic and scarily pertinent …”

I agree.

If you’re in the mood to watch a trippy 1970 film version, it’s on YouTube, with Butch Patrick as Milo.

Next up is an author and a book that I’m unfamiliar with, Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. Let’s hope it’s not a letdown after this fantastic read!

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Schedule – November through February
note: dates are not necessarily set in stone – posts may go up a day or two before or after
November 30 – #62 Clementine by Sara Pennypacker (2006)
December 15 – #47 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
December 30 – Winter Break
January 15 – #28 The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
January 31 – #95 The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1943)
February 15 – #20 Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (2000)

100 Chapter Books Project: The Bad Beginning

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Half-way down the Top 100 Chapter Books list is The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, first in the Series of Unfortunate Events. I’m going to keep this short, just like the book.

What it’s about: The three Baudelaire children–Violet, Klaus and Sunny–are orphaned and are sent to the first of their many future homes, that of Count Olaf. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Olaf is a horrible person who has only agreed to take guardianship of the children in order to get control of their vast fortune. I wonder how he could manage that …

Age level: Grade 3-5

Best part: I love that Violet is the one who is a gifted engineer (girl power!) and I really like the way that Snicket endeavors to expand kids’ vocabularies.

Worst part: The writing is a bit choppy and the clueless adults are just a bit too clueless.

Verdict: Buy/Borrow

Though this isn’t one of my favorite books, it’s not bad and one can certainly see how it influenced many stories that have come after it. It was daring in 1999 to have a story without a clear happy ending. No matter how capable the kids are, some things are just out of their control. I’ve never read past book three or four (there are thirteen in the series, naturally) but I know there are still kids at Z’s school that take out the books one after another — and how can you argue with that?

Now, I’ll admit that I’ve chosen a couple of beloved rereads as some of my winter books for this project and the first is The Phantom Tollbooth. I have adored this book since I first read it in 6th grade and I read it with Z a couple of years ago and he loved it too. If you’ve never read this brainy adventure, join me!

*****
Schedule – November through January
note: dates are not necessarily set in stone – posts may go up a day or two before or after
November 15 – #21 The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)
November 30 – #62 Clementine by Sara Pennypacker (2006)
December 15 – #47 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
December 30 – Winter Break
January 15 – #28 The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
January 31 – #95 The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1943)

 

100 Chapter Books Project: The Egypt Game

EgyptGame

Sadly, a couple of days ago, Zilpha Keatley Snyder died at the age of 87. (Publishers’ Weekly obituary) I have to admit that it has made me change my post slightly, to be a bit more thoughtful and positive about the book and about what she was trying to accomplish. I had never heard of Snyder or The Egypt Game (1967) before I saw it on the Top 100 Chapter Books but I do plan on seeking out more of her books now, especially since a few of them have been recently reissued.

What it’s about: After her actress mother gets flaky, April moves from Hollywood to Berkeley, CA to live with her paternal grandmother. She’s sometimes a brat about it, treating her grandmother badly as she somewhat impatiently waits for her mother to summon her back home. She wears a hairstyle that’s far too old for her, massive fake eyelashes, and a fur stole and then wonders why she has trouble fitting in with the easy-going Berkeley kids. But Melanie, a girl from her apartment building, is a good kid and she connects with April over a newly-born interest in Egypt and they start playing a pretend game about being Egyptians. A new girl in their building joins them in the game and everything is going well until a child in the neighborhood is abducted and murdered and all of the parents make their kids stay indoors. But they (and the boys who eventually join their game) sneak around anyway and eventually one of them ends up in true peril.

Age level: Grade 4-6

Best part: I really liked the way April and Melanie treated Marshall, Melanie’s four-year-old brother. He was a quirky little guy and they always stood up for him and treated him well.

Worst part: Though I’m sure Snyder meant well in 1967, crafting a novel that celebrated the diversity of families that lived in this college community, she goes a bit overboard in her praise for the racial characteristics of each character. For example, though she barely mentions anything about April’s face except for her bad hairstyle and fake lashes, she gushes about Elizabeth’s Asian eyes three or four times. Again, I’m sure she meant well but it comes across as a tad awkward in our semi-post-racial society.

Verdict: Buy/Borrow

If I had read this book in the early 80s when I was a kid, I probably would have loved it. It was a bit mysterious, had things in it that would have still seemed topical and probable in the mid 80s, and would have gotten me interested in ancient Egypt earlier than I eventually was. But, reading this now, I found the child abductor scenario to be very dated. However, this was mostly a book about diverse friendships, making history come alive and choosing to live with the circumstances that life gives you. While this book wasn’t perfect, I still thought it was very good and I think that there is probably still an audience out there for it today.

Next up is a reread for me of the first of the Series of Unfortunate Events, The Bad Beginning. To be honest, I liked it but didn’t love it so I wonder how I’ll feel about it this time through. I also might read one or two of the following books as well.

*****

Schedule – October through January

note: dates are not necessarily set in stone – posts may go up a day or two before or after

October 31 – #48 The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket (1999)

November 15 – #21 The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)

November 30 – #62 Clementine by Sara Pennypacker (2006)

December 15 – #47 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

December 30 – Winter Break

January 15 – #28 The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)