How the magic of "The Phantom Tollbooth" made me want to be a writer
I started reading at a very early age — so early, in fact, that family members who saw me reading were convinced that my parents were playing an elaborate prank. They thought that my parents had helped me memorize Peter Rabbit, and that I was simply reciting the words. Over the years, I became a voracious reader, and devoured books quickly. My parents taught my brother and me to not be materialistic — but they also told us that if we ever wanted new reading material, they wouldn’t say no. I did not take this promise lightly, and trips to our local Barnes & Noble were frequent. I learned to speed read so that I could make the absolute most of this agreement, and I read all of Roald Dahl’s books, I read Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, everything Madeleine L’Engle ever wrote, all of Harry Potter (of course), the entire Princess Diaries series, and strange books in the sale section, like one about the history of postage stamps. And then I read The Phantom Tollbooth.
Through much of my childhood, I was mostly uninterested in things other kids were doing. I wasn’t interested in sports (though these days, I can admit that sports are also uninterested in me), and I didn’t care much about make-believe games, like playing doctor or playing house. Though I did have a wild imagination, and still do, I used it for quietly telling myself stories rather than acting the stories out, and to be quite honest, I was often bored with other kids. So when I first read The Phantom Tollbooth and found myself reading about a little boy who was also bored, I sat up straight. Was I like this Milo character?
In the story, Milo finds a curious package (a phantom tollbooth, of course) at his house after school one day. After dismissing the package and its contents at first, due to brattiness and general skepticism, he drives his tiny play car through the tollbooth to find himself on an epic adventure that (spoiler alert!) eventually cures him of boredom. During this trip — the purpose of which is to rescue Princesses Rhyme and Reason from a castle in the sky, to which they’ve been banished — he meets a host of colorful characters, including a watchdog named Tock, a humbug, a spelling bee, and a mathematician.
I remember the first time I read the book, I laughed out loud nearly every other paragraph and highlighted so much of the book that my first copy was nearly all neon yellow (yes, I’ve had many copies since, due to giving it away to friends I thought would love it). During a scene at the Word Market, the place where letters and words are bought and sold, Milo and Tock got to taste letters. The letter A “tasted sweet and delicious — just the way you’d expect an A to taste,” while the letter X “tastes like a trunkful of stale air. That’s why people hardly ever use them.” It was this kind of writing that made me giddy with delight; I’d never thought about the way that words and letters feel in your mouth, and Norton Juster had captured that in such a refreshing way.
My favorite scene was the scene in which Milo “conducts” the sunrise. In the story, there’s an orchestra in the woods that plays not music but colors, and each day they play the nuanced shades that color our world. The conductor, Chroma, tasks Milo with keeping watch of the orchestra all night and waking him up at 5:23am to play in the sun. However, Milo decided to take on this task himself, and it went horribly wrong — the sunset was blue, and green, and orange, and then the sun went down, and up, and back again. By the time the orchestra finally settled back on night and Chroma woke up to fix it, they’d all lost a whole week. Norton Juster’s description of the lost week, the colors that tinted the world, and Milo’s anxiety during his mishap was absolutely brilliant, and I remember trying to write similar scenes when I was young to capture that same whimsical feeling.
As you can probably guess, Milo left the book changed, as did I. At this point, I can’t even begin to guess how many times I’ve reread “Tollbooth” — it’s likely nearing 15 by now, and there are certain sections I can recite by heart. I’ve bought between 5-10 copies to give to friends, and my own is earmarked and underlined beyond recognition. It is, very obviously, a book well-loved.
Many writers can pinpoint the beginning of their love of words to a certain book, series, or author. That’s what The Phantom Tollbooth was for me — while other books made me want to read, “Tollbooth” made me want to WRITE. I saw the way Juster played with words and effortlessly created not only an entirely different world with language, but also turned language itself on its head. I was hooked. In the book, he reminds readers that words we use every day have meanings we’ve completely forgotten, he reminds us (literally) not to jump to conclusions, he tells us all at once that while silence is golden, most of the time, words are even more precious.