When people ask me what my favorite book was growing up, hands down I’d say The Phantom Tollbooth. In reality it’s probably tied with Anne of Green Gables. Those were my early loves. Following those, my favorites would be anything by Tamora Pierce and L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series.
Usually, though, I like to talk about The Phantom Tollbooth. I’ve even gone as far as mailing a few copies to people just to encourage them to read it! So, without further ado, let me introduce you to:
The Phantom Tollbooth
By Norton Juster and illustrations by Jules Feiffer Published: 1961 (Random House) Ages: 8+
Back cover: For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams. . .
This book shaped the way I see the world and inspired my creativity to grow. My mother, brother and I were constantly quoting it to each other, saying, “Oh don’t jump to conclusions, you’ll have to swim back,” because we all knew that conclusions was an island and the only way to leave it was to swim.
It’s full of wonderful wordplay, and it views the world with such pleasing creativity. It has little illustrations every few pages that attempt to capture the oddity of the world Milo has found himself in. As a child the book is suspenseful and, near the end, a little frightening (at least it was for little me!) as Milo meets some horrible creatures before finding the princesses Rhyme and Reason.
My favorite place in the book then, and still to this day, was the Dictionopolis. I’ve loved words since I was little and I loved Dictionopolis because of how words were described. In Dictionopolis, you can literally eat your words and some words are sweet while others are not.
“OH DEAR, ALL THOSE WORDS AGAIN,” THOUGHT MILO AS HE CLIMBED INTO THE WAGON WITH TOCK AND THE CABINET MEMBERS. “HOW ARE YOU GOING TO MAKE IT MOVE? IT DOESN’T HAVE A—”
“BE VERY QUIET,” ADVISED THE DUKE, “FOR IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING.” AND, SURE ENOUGH, AS SOON AS THEY WERE ALL QUITE STILL, IT BEGAN TO MOVE THROUGH THE STREETS, AND IN A VERY SHORT TIME THEY ARRIVED AT THE ROYAL PALACE.
This book brought me a great deal of pleasure as a child, and then again as an adult – it’s one of my comfort go-to novels. What I didn’t understand as a child was so much fun to discover as an adult. It’s a well-loved book. When first published it received rave reviews and sold in excess past its expectations, and it has since been adapted into a film, opera, play and translated into many languages. The major theme of the book is the importance of learning to love learning. Perhaps it’s the reason I’ve gone on to do so many degrees in school! Maybe it has shaped me more than I realized.
I’d recommend this book to anyone. It’s a little cheesy and certainly written for a young audience, but I loved it (and still do)!
I’m sure I’m not the first to have written something like this, particularly since it’s well past prime time for Twilight…anything. The wave of wild appreciation for the novels passed long ago, as did the quick-to-follow wave of derision. But it’s something that I think is actually quite important, as a writer and as a human. Important enough to sit down a write a spiel about a decade later. Important enough that I must first give you some of my personal history with Twilight.
Allow me to set the scene:
It is 2006. I am sitting on a charter bus that is swaying its way across the west American desert in the general direction of Anaheim, California, where my high school choir will be singing about 15% of the time and engaging in all manner of (mostly innocent) teenage degeneracy at Disneyland for the other 85%. Sitting beside me is one of my friends with a book in her hands, and she is entirely captivated. The cover art is compellingly simple, a solid design. I’ve seen it before, numerous times and in numerous hands; I ask what the book is about. My friend hands me the book to read the synopsis.
I wasn’t particularly interested, then. It sounded “girly” and at this time in my life I took great pride in not being “girly,” which is a whole separate topic for another day. And, setting my disappointing aversion to stereotypically female things aside, I tended to prefer older and more fantastical settings in my novels. So a year or two passed before I thought of the Twilight books again.
Somehow my family acquired copies of the first few books and brought them on a family trip to Yellowstone. My mom, brother, and I each read all of the available books within that 4-5 day trip while my dad, presumably, wondered what the big deal was. (I think he tried to read them and gave up after the first couple of pages. Haha.) I was as drawn into the books as everyone else seemed to have been, as much as my friend on the bus had been that day in 2006. Suddenly I was part of their popularity, buying the final books the day they were released and discussing the story and characters with my friends.
And then…the backlash. Suddenly the books were a stain on literacy. Few would admit to ever having liked them. The grammar was ripped apart, the questionable ethics of Edward and Bella’s relationship were illuminated and decried, the interpretation of vampires became an offense to mythology, and those brave enough to stand by their beloved book series were mocked as stupid teenagers or horny house wives. And I admit—I joined in. Not in mocking people for liking something (that’s rude, guys), but I did make fun of the novels. I saw the poor grammar, the purposefully bland character of Bella, the stalker-but-it’s-okay-because-she-likes-it character of Edward, and I acquired the same harsh contempt for the books that so many around me adopted.
But here’s the thing: I recently read the books again, knowing that they’re not my genre, that the grammar was pretty shoddy, that the romance was dubious and controversial, and that my opinion of the book was probably the most unforgiving of any book I’d ever read. And I couldn’t put it down. I was hooked—again! All that other stuff didn’t matter. And that’s when I realized that for as much hate as Stephanie Meyer got for these books she’d tapped into something that created a phenomenon, and there was something there that would teach me about writing.
This book has a relatable main character.
So many women enjoyed reading this book because Bella is, shall we say, versatile. She has very few defining personality traits, which is often pointed out as a flaw of the book (and I would agree.) But she does have several very understandable interests and motivations. She wants to be seen as something special—so do most of us. She would make great sacrifices for love—so would many of us. Many times Bella feels underqualified for her situation—too normal, too ordinary. I don’t know about you, but that feels very familiar.
If you are a writer, I wouldn’t recommend doing this the “Bella” way. Good characters feel like fully finished people, with their own interests and quirks and faults that make them unique. But Stephanie Meyer did a good enough job with the other stuff—the external things that we can all understand and relate to—that it was wildly successful anyway. That’s pretty impressive, when you think about it.
It got people to read.
This really needs no explanation. Twilight was one of the most successful book series of all time, and it brought hundreds of previous non-readers into the world of words and imagination. I think that’s worth something, don’t you?
The mockery of Twilight fans and their interests is frequently rooted in sexism.
Yeah…here’s where my feminist side struts on out to present my unsolicited hot take. But honestly, the interests of teenage girls and stay-at-home moms are constantly, constantly made fun of by anyone who doesn’t fall into these categories, and often by people who do (like younger me). Music, hobbies, fashion and—of course—books that women latch onto are widely considered to be silly or frivolous or any manner of unflattering adjectives. A series as wildly popular as Twilight was would never have received the extreme and near-immediate backlash that it did if it weren’t so popular among female audiences. Isn’t that sad? I’m not saying that if you made fun of this book or its readers that you are definitely sexist, but it is a thing and worth considering. This series got people to read and made those oft-mocked readers feel special and interesting as they stepped into Bella’s shoes. Maybe that’s not really super cool to make fun of, in the end.
This whole rant/essay isn’t here to change anyone’s opinion about the books. They’re definitely not for everyone, and you don’t have to think they’re good. But if you’re someone who, like me, used to wonder why so many people loved this “trash”…well, as they say, sometimes these things are more treasure than we think. Perhaps it’s better to wonder what we can learn from it instead.