Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Books
8 December 2021updated 09 Dec 2021 1:38pm

Douglas Kennedy: The Phantom Tollbooth showed me the value of imagination

Norman Juster’s seminal tale is an adventure story about the absolute wonder of learning – and the need to discover and maintain curiosity.

By Douglas Kennedy

Back when Manhattan had a middle class, there were four of us in a 650 sq ft apartment on East 19th Street and 2nd Avenue. My parents had what could be politely described as a combustible marriage – and starting at the age of eight I sought constant refuge in the public library four blocks north of our place. My first solo journey there in October 1963 was revelatory – especially as the librarian (I’ll call her Mrs Grossinger) greeted me as I sheepishly asked if I could sign up for a library card. Mrs Grossinger took care of all that in a moment, then asked me if I wanted to try a novel about why “learning is the best thing you can do”. She also promised me that it was a great read.

With my newly minted card, I borrowed a copy of Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. It had illustrations by the great subversive New York cartoonist, Jules Feiffer. With a copy under my arm I did what I always did after my library visit – I adjourned to a chemists near our apartment (which, like all pharmacies of the era, had a lunch counter). I ordered a Coke (it cost the equivalent of three pence back then), and cracked open Mr Juster’s novel.

An hour later the soda jerk behind the counter pulled away my empty glass and said (in splendid New York-ese): “Hey kid, don’t you got a home to go to?” But I didn’t want to leave the magic world that Juster had created. It’s one in which a little boy (around my age at the time) comes home, enervated after boring classes at school and the prospect of another dreary night at home. But tonight, there’s a package awaiting him, inviting him to get into his toy car and drive it through a magic tollbooth into the Kingdom of Wisdom. And before you can say “shazam”, Milo is on his way with his toy dog Tock to a place called Dictionopolis where there’s an actual market where they sell words. But all is not well in the Kingdom of Wisdom – as there is an ongoing dispute between the wordsmiths and the mathematicians – and Milo and Tock have many escapades with characters such as the Dodecahedron and Chroma the Great.

An adventure story about the absolute wonder of learning – and the need to discover and maintain curiosity – Juster’s seminal tale also informed eight-year-old me: the only antidote to ennui is imagination. I locked myself in my room that night after my father came home from work and my parents began their usual post-dinner verbal warfare. I disappeared with Milo and Tock into the Kingdom of Wisdom, and began to understand: books are the keys to a world beyond your own difficult realities.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

This article is part of our “The children’s books that shaped us” series. Read more reflections from our writers here.

Content from our partners
How automation can help telecoms companies unlock their growth potential
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better
Feel confident gifting tech to your children this Christmas