I’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.
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.
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 …”
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!