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What Norton Juster's 'The Phantom Tollbooth' Taught Me About This Life

The author reading her daughters, "The Phantom Tollbooth," in March 2021. (Courtesy)
The author reading her daughters, "The Phantom Tollbooth," in March 2021. (Courtesy)

When I was in fifth grade, and starting to experience real difficulties at home, I spent a lot of time in my public school’s library. I’m adopted, and it was around that age that I found myself more reflected in stories, than in the faces and personalities of my family. I sought refuge in books — the ones I read over and over, and the ones people thrust into my hands, saying, “I think you’d love this.”

Our school librarian, an older woman named Mrs. Ross, had a reputation for being mean and scary. To me, she was like a grandmother. I sat with her and talked for hours. She gave me a book for every mood, for every woe. “Have you read this one?” she’d say. “Ooh, and this one reminded me of you.” Once, she added “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster to the pile in my arms. “You really must read this one too!” Its blue cover with a young boy eye-to-eye with a big dog, its body a wind-up clock with Roman numerals, intrigued me. I knew I’d read this book first. I was 10. I am 48 now, and “The Phantom Tollbooth” has been my favorite book since.

It’s the story of 10-year-old Milo, a boy who is bored by everything, who takes interest in nothing. He comes home from school one day to find a mysterious package in the middle of his room. He follows the enclosed instructions and assembles a purple tollbooth. He drives his little electric car through it and finds himself in another world, the Lands Beyond, where he encounters strange people and creatures. Together with a Humbug and a watchdog, he is sent on a quest to rescue the twin princesses Rhyme and Reason by their brothers, the King Azaz and the Mathemagician. The brothers warn him that there is one very serious problem with this journey, but they cannot tell him what it is until he returns.

The author, left, as a fifth grader, and her beloved school librarian, Mrs. Ross, who died in 1996. (Courtesy)
The author, left, as a fifth grader, and her beloved school librarian, Mrs. Ross, who died in 1996. (Courtesy)

It would not be hyperbolic to say that, at times, “The Phantom Tollbooth” has saved me. At work, in relationships, and, sadly, in life, there are times I have wanted to and even tried to give up. I am always on the hunt for TedTalks, cute animal videos and internet memes, and quotes that inspire people to keep going.  The one I come back to most is this scene from the end of the novel.

"They're shouting for you," she said with a smile.

"But I could never have done it," he objected, "without everyone else's help."

"That may be true," said Reason gravely, "but you had the courage to try; and what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do."

"That's why," said Azaz, "there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn't discuss until you returned."

"I remember," said Milo eagerly. "Tell me now."

"It was impossible," said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.

"Completely impossible," said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.

"Do you mean — " stammered the bug, who suddenly felt a bit faint.

"Yes, indeed," they repeated together, "but if we'd told you then, you might not have gone — and, as you've discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible."

If Milo could persevere and achieve the impossible, so could I.

At the end of fifth grade, when I graduated from elementary school, Mrs. Ross said I could pick any book from the library I wanted. I chose Juster’s classic. Before I left with it, she wrote in the inside cover. “To Aimee. Never stop reading and growing. Love, Mrs. Ross.” She included her phone number, and though she retired that same June, we stayed in touch for a while.

Some years ago, I looked her up online and learned she had passed away. I wished I’d been able to tell her that I’d passed on my love of reading to my children, and always let them choose one book when they’re in the doldrums like I was — like Milo once found himself. Reading and rereading is often their way out too.

Author Norton Juster at his home in Amherst, Mass. Juster died at 91 on March 8, 2021. (Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Author Norton Juster at his home in Amherst, Mass. Juster died at 91 on March 8, 2021. (Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

I have memorized entire passages I quote often in conversation, framed and hung original Jules Feiffer illustrations, and even considered (but did not get) one of the illustrations as a tattoo. I give a copy to every new friend. I read it to my children, starting when they were in utero. I give it to their friends as birthday gifts. This book, its wit, humor, maps, and layered brilliance has captivated me, tickled me, taught me vocabulary, and inspired me. Like “The Muppet Show” and other Henson productions of its time, “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a for-children-of-all-ages kind of children’s book that is rich with clever adult humor that children miss entirely. Every time I read the book I discover something new.

Norton Juster passed away this week. He was 91. His primary career was as an architect and professor of architecture, but he started writing to pass the time in the military. It was as a writer that he made his lasting mark. “The Phantom Tollbooth” was published in 1961, when he was 32.

I met Mr. Juster and his illustrator, author and cartoonist Jules Feiffer, at Books of Wonder in New York City in October of 2010. They were promoting their newly released, long-awaited second collaboration, "The Odious Ogre." I had a nine-month-old baby. Knowing it was likely my only chance, I brought a copy of "The Phantom Tollbooth" with me and asked them to make out their inscriptions to the baby. They didn’t have to know I was the one named Aimee.

Thank you, Mr. Juster, for writing a book that made such a lasting impression on this reader. You didn’t even consider yourself a writer, yet you set the bar so very high for writers everywhere.

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Aimee Christian Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Aimee Christian lives in the Boston area and is a current Pauline Scheer fellow at Grub Street, where she is working on a memoir.

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