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The Phantom Tollbooth, Norman Juster

I think the buildup that I got for this book was too high to allow me to enjoy it fully. Had I not read the voluminous streams of unabashed praise from r.a.b.bers (that is the rabble that inhabits rec.arts.books) as well as recommendations from my First Impressions subscribers, I might have been pleasantly surprised by this book. As it was, I read it with an uncommonly sharp critical eye, thinking “it can’t be that good,” and unfortunately the book wasn’t able to overcome my, admitedly, unreasonable bias.

Milo is just your average kid that receives a magic tollbooth in the mail and then proceeds to discover how to view the world differently by saving a magic kingdom. Hmmm, a few shades of Narnia? Yes, but no. Juster loves wordplay, and, while I admit some of it is incredibly clever, he tends to sacrifice story for puns. The disjointed movement between “scenes” reminded me of another clever book of wordplay, Silverlock (in which the wordplay is allusions rather than puns), in that Juster moves the characters to different realms solely to pun more rather than a smooth movement of characters to their goal. The book becomes almost dull in the areas between encounters, and definitely feels segmented.

But, to return to my beginning, I’m probably being unfair. I cannot say that The Phantom Tollbooth isn’t clever, and some of the bits are simply wonderful, like the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping). I would have thought the wordplay would be too esoteric for kids, but given this book’s popularity, I think I’m selling youth short.

If you haven’t read this, you probably should. Perhaps my unfavorable tone will cancel some of the more shameless paeons for it, and you will be able to evaluate it without bias.

[Finished 12 June 1994]


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