I’m babysitting a very cool 9-year-old for a few days, which has gotten me thinking about books I loved when I was younger. I read a LOT as a kid, but The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster (and illustrated by Jules Feiffer) was one of my absolute favorites. This year I recommended it to the same 9-year-old and she could not put it down, so it definitely continues to stand the test of time. With so many new books coming out each year, it’s easy to forget about the great books that are already out there. I don’t worry too much about this usually, because I know I can always come back to the classics next year, or 10 years down the road for that matter. But with children’s literature it’s harder since 5 years can make for a completely different read of the book. There’s only a short window for a children’s book to have that amazing impression.
Anyway, back to The Phantom Tollbooth. The story is about oh-so-bored Milo, a young boy who comes home one day to find a mysterious package. Once he assembles the tollbooth inside, he’s off to a fantasy world that toys around with word play and logic, finding places and people that are literal interpretations of ideas or common phrases. Along his way he travels to the Doldrums, Dictionopolis, Digitopolis, the twin towns of Reality and Illusions, the Mountains of Ignorance, and a Castle-in-the-Air, and meets entertaining and utterly unique characters like the watchdog called Tock, a “Not-So-Wicked Which,” a boy who hovers in the air at his final height and grows toward the ground, the Whether Man, a Spelling Bee, and the Half Boy (who is the .58 person of the average 2.58 person family). It’s really fun to read and really hard to put down. If you’re scratching your head about a gift for a 4th-grader, this is a sure bet.