Gregory McNamee: The Phantom Tollbooth: A Subversive Classic Hits Middle Age

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[Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor for Encyclopædia Britannica, for which he writes regularly on world geography, culture, and other topics. An editor, publishing consultant, and photographer, he is also the author of 30 books, most recently Moveable Feasts: The History, Science, and Lore of Food (Praeger, 2006).]

Christopher Robin and Heidi are long in the grave. The Little Prince is in retirement on some distant planet. Frodo has hidden himself away far from Middle Earth, somewhere outside Piscataway. Holden Caulfield wears dentures, and the Hardy Boys haven’t had the oomph to climb a spiral staircase for decades.

Codgers all. But Milo—no last name given, none needed—has just turned a spry 48, a comparative babe in arms. And thanks to his creator, a wise architect named Norton Juster, Milo turned out to be better equipped than most children’s-book figures to survive in the real world, a place that, as Milo well knows, is full of trivia, tedium, sound, and fury.

When we first encounter him in the opening moments of The Phantom Tollbooth, first published in September 1961, Milo is bored, bored, bored. Conveniently lacking parents and with few apparent responsibilities other than going to school, he lives in a house well appointed with toys, games, books, and other goodies. Nothing can engage him. “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,” he grumbles. Milo has an incuriosity about the world and learning that would do a certain former president and any number of sitting politicians proud, and nothing, it seems, can shake him from his torpor...

... It’s just the sort of thing, in other words, to give fits to those who squealed about President Obama’s recent cheerleading address to the nation’s schoolchildren. Indeed, such people have tried to have The Phantom Tollbooth banned at several points in the last half-century.

They may have a point. In his splendid biography Walt Disney, Neal Gabler claims a place for the chief Mouseketeer as an author of the counterculture of the 1960s. His case is a good one, and so is that for adding Norton Juster to the list of hippie-makers, among the likes of Lenny Bruce, William Gaines, and Captain Kangaroo. Juster taught his young readers to question authority, to question generally, to read and inquire, and certainly to leave a kindly mark on the world. To read between the lines of the Soundkeeper episode, he also endorsed rock ’n’ roll: from Tollbooth to Blue Cheer’s eardrum-busting Vincebus Eruptum is a blissfully short step.

Not quite half a century old and showing no signs of age, The Phantom Tollbooth well deserves its status as a literary classic. It’s not bad reading for kids, either.

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