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How ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ saved me

Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Justerhandout

Who doesn’t remember what it’s like to be a bored child?

Boredom was what first led me to “The Phantom Tollbooth” when I was a kid. My mother and I had just moved from the South End, where we’d lived in John Leary House, a bustling Catholic Worker-run apartment building at 418 Mass. Ave., which was full of characters and laughter and noise, to a small, gray, drafty farmhouse on the very rural border between Athol and Petersham.

As the new kid in town, I had no friends to speak of, and I didn’t want any, anyway. I was 9 years old and in a permanent bad mood after leaving a busy and boisterous city neighborhood for a quiet, empty old toll road that turned into a dirt lane about 100 yards past our new home. The move had shocked me. I just couldn’t comprehend — why had my mother and I moved to a place so empty? So…uninteresting?

My father was still living in the city, and my mother was often at work for most of the day. Left by myself with nothing to do, I would usually ride my bike to the center of town and head to the Petersham Memorial Library, a large imposing building made of stone and sporting a single, tall turret. It was there that I discovered “The Phantom Tollbooth.”

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Maybe the librarian had sensed my boredom. Maybe she understood that I felt out of place. Maybe I said something about how I wasn’t fitting in at my new school, or maybe she merely knew what so many librarians and booksellers knew and know to this day, which is that Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” is one of the best books for young readers. Especially for a reader who had temporarily forgotten how brilliantly fun and imaginative books could be.

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Immediately I connected with Milo, an indifferent child “who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.” That is, until one day when Milo discovers a giant mysterious package in his bedroom, accompanied by a bright bright-blue envelope on which is written, “FOR MILO, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME.”

My memories of the story, and its marvelous illustrations by Jules Feiffer, are in fragments. There’s the small toy car and purple tollbooth. The Lands Beyond and the Kingdom of Wisdom, a kingdom that is torn in two. The colorless Doldrums and its inhabitants, the Lethargians. King Azaz and his brother, the Mathemagician. Dictionopolis and the Word Market, and the Spelling Bee. Digitopolis, the Dodecahedron, and the banished princesses Rhyme and Reason. The Mountains of Ignorance and the Castle in the Air.

Tock, the dog on the cover with a clock in his middle, was a “watchdog,” a pun that I remember getting at the time, although I’m sure there were many I didn’t understand, along with many of the tantalizingly large words. I didn’t mind at all. What a joy to read a story written by someone who trusted me to figure it out. A book that pushed me to reach, instead of feel comfortable. To expand, instead of shrink.

I took that book home to finish reading it. I’d sit somewhat uncomfortably in a tree or against a stone wall or, more often than not, in my sparsely decorated bedroom with the door closed as my mother had hushed arguments with my father on the phone. There were many things in the book that went over my head during my first time reading it. But a land left with neither Rhyme nor Reason, as I listened to my parents fight, that I understood.

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After I finished the book, I started it over again. In between readings I began to play outside, encouraged to explore the new lands around me. I felt inspired to read more, to meet new people, to experience everything. To realize that this new place my mother and I had moved to was in no way boring. It was an opportunity. An adventure.

Regrettably, one thing I don’t remember is returning the book to the library. If I never did, I would like to take this moment to apologize to the Petersham Memorial Library. Especially because the magic of the phantom tollbooth, as Milo discovers at the end of the book, should ideally be passed on to the “so many other boys and girls waiting to use it too.”

This book widened my imagination at exactly the right time — just when I needed the consolation, just when I needed the exhortation to find adventure in the strange and new.

Although I have no idea where my maybe-stolen-forever-from-the-Petersham-Memorial-Library copy of “The Phantom Tollbooth” ended up, I’ve owned multiple other copies of the book throughout my life. But I couldn’t find any of them now. I have always been guilty of giving away books, so my hope is that I gave those copies away as penance for the copy I (maybe) stole so long ago.

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So, after seeing the announcement of Norton Juster’s death this month at 91, I just wanted to hold “The Phantom Tollbooth” in my hand. To remember how that book added color to my world when I so desperately needed it. I went to my local bookstore and bought a copy. Flipping through its pages, a line jumped out at me, said in unison by King Azaz and his brother the Mathemagician: “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

Isaac Fitzgerald is the author of the bestselling children’s book “How to Be a Pirate” and the forthcoming essay collection “Dirtbag, Massachusetts.”