My daughter is in the first grade, and her teacher gives her a packet of homework for the week on Mondays. In almost all ways, her mother and I can look at our daughter’s habits, turn to one another, and say “that’s you” or “she gets that from your Dad.” But there is one thing that neither one of us can take credit for: this child will sit down and do her entire week’s worth of math homework in one sitting. So we praise and encourage it and give a small prayer of thanks since it’s unlikely either of us will be qualified to help with math homework by the time she’s in high school.
“You’re a Mathemagician!” I told her recently, which to my gratitude was received as the funniest thing ever said to a seven-year-old. In an aside to her Mom, I confessed that I had probably cribbed that from The Phantom Tollbooth. She replied that she didn’t think she’d read it, and as I described the plot, I was suffused with warmth like I’d just drank a cup of good tea. There was comfort and safety and fun in my memory of the book.
The novel, by Norton Juster, begins with a boy, Milo, who is bored of everything, sees nothing beautiful or interesting in the world, and regards gaining knowledge as the biggest waste of time of all. In the first of Jules Feiffer’s energetic illustrations, Milo is depicted against a hatched background, reminiscent of how Charles Schulz drew rain, showing us how little of the world he sees or cares for.
But then Milo receives a mysterious playhouse-sized tollbooth, drives his toy car past it, and is transported to “the lands beyond,” which include the Kingdom of Wisdom. The kingdom is divided between King Azaz who rules Dictionopolis and his brother, the Mathemagician, in Digitopolis. Things have been out of whack in the kingdom ever since the brothers banished their sisters, Rhyme and Reason. Milo soon takes on the quest to rescue the princesses and thus restore order to the realm.
Milo progresses through the various fiefs of the kingdom, including the Forest of Sight and the Valley of Sound, meeting allies, solving problems, and receiving gifts before finally confronting the monsters in the Mountains of Ignorance. I wouldn’t be surprised if Juster was familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell, and not just because of the Hero’s Journey plot; Campbell also popularized the phrase “follow your bliss.”
Rereading the book now, I’m pleased to discover that my memory of the book was accurate. The Phantom Tollbooth is a blissful book. And, a little surprisingly, re-reading it has helped me frame how living inside my neurodivergent (ADHD) mind informs my parenting.
I’m not certain how old I was when I encountered The Phantom Tollbooth. I can say that I got George Carlin’s Brain Droppings when it came out in 1997. I was fourteen. That’s a fairly accurate mile marker for when I entered my world-weary cynical period, so it would have had to have been well before that. Fourteen-year-old me did not have much time for a book as gentle-hearted as Juster’s.
Now that I actually am weary of the world, I’m trying to be less cynical and more eager for gentleness and kindness. The Phantom Tollbooth is never mean and—delightfully for a book of its vintage—neither is it racist, homophobic, nor any of the other usual gifts that the Suck Fairy* brings to your beloved childhood reading. Thanks to its kind disposition, the book’s humor has survived intact.
It’s entirely possible that the modern dad joke can be traced to The Phantom Tollbooth. Juster was an architect professionally, but I think it’s fair to say that his avocation was being a goof. This is a man whose Wikipedia entry mentions at least three pranks—including founding a club that declined membership to anyone and everyone who applied—but zero building or urban planning projects. The Phantom Tollbooth is built on puns and taking phrases literally. There is a carriage that drives itself when all the passengers are silent, since it “goes without saying.” Our hero Milo has a stout-hearted companion, the watchdog Tock, who is a dog with a clock built into his sides. Tock’s clock, tragically, only goes tick.
As I reread the book now, I find myself periodically wondering if authors I encountered later might have been fans of The Phantom Tollbooth. Juster describes a group of people as looking “very much like the residents of any other small valley to which you’ve never been,” and that reminds me of Douglas Adams’s spaceships, which hang in the air “exactly the way bricks don’t.” First published in 1961, The Phantom Tollbooth is almost a proto-Terry Pratchett story, using the form of a portal fantasy to satirize the foundations of learning. I’ll stop short of crediting or blaming Juster for my tilted sense of humor—that probably has more to do with my dad’s love of The Muppet Show and my mom’s fondness for M*A*S*H reruns—but The Phantom Tollbooth certainly primed the pump.
Humor is a chicken-and-egg problem, isn’t it? Are Milo, Kermit, and Hawkeye some kind of goofy, well-meaning trinity for me because I was introduced to them at an impressionable age, or did my askew brain chemistry predispose me to love them?
The interesting thing about reading when you’re young is the lessons you learn without realizing it, because you’re not aware that there was anything being taught. Through its quiet, low-stakes adventures, The Phantom Tollbooth helped me internalize that it was alright to enjoy learning about everything, and to play with language, and to be kind of odd. There’s a fragment of Ancient Greek poetry that runs “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.” The Phantom Tollbooth gave me permission to be a fox. In retrospect, it helped me understand that maybe being an undiagnosed ADHD kid was… fine?
Shame about the rest of the world, really.
Because the lessons I’d get in the wider world were to shove my foxy brain into a hedgehog body. Find one thing, and stick to it. That having eleventy-one hobbies and odd turns of phrase made me the weird one. That weird was bad! That I needed to look up who won the Super Bowl before I went to work so I wouldn’t stick out. Forcing someone into a hedgehog shape, unsurprisingly, makes them prickly. These days, I am mostly my authentic, neurodivergent, foxlike self.
Sometimes I fall back into the neurotypical hedgehog disguise. When I do, that is also when I do my worst parenting. Because at those times, I try to be a Proper Adult™, and I’m about as good at that as hedgehogs are at climbing trees. If there is one piece of practical advice in this essay, it’s this: keep reading childrens’ novels as an adult. I’ve found that helps my perspective stay closer to my daughter’s.
The Phantom Tollbooth knows that this is important, of course. Midway through his journey, in the Forest of Sight, Milo meets Alec Bings, a boy of about his own age who is floating a few feet in the air. In Alec’s family, children are born with their heads at the height they will be as adults and grow down until their feet touch the ground. Upon finding out that Milo is growing the other way, Alec says:
“What a silly system.” The boy laughed. “Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things in a different way? Why, when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again.”
As well as being a Lewis Carroll-level piece of business, this episode dramatizes one of the largest challenges we all face: living with a changing viewpoint even when we don’t notice that the view is changing. A lot of suffering, personal and social, might be avoided by all of us remembering to keep changing our point of view even after we’ve reached our full height. At this point in the story Milo is learning to experiment and asks if he might be able to see things from up there. You can, Alec tells him, but “only if you try very hard to look at things as an adult does.”
Milo tries, is able to hover briefly, and then crashes to the ground. He decides to keep seeing things as a child for now. The scene is as good a reminder as any that it’s much easier for me to alter my point of view to match my daughter’s than for her to strain to see things from mine.
Watching my daughter grow, I wonder: is her brain like my brain? Because that’s been one of the big debates over the years. Where does simply being a child shift into forms of neurodivergence? To be clear, I’m not worried that she may have ADHD or another version of the alphabet soup. Worry implies a value judgement. I don’t worry that she’ll need glasses or vitamin supplements, either. But I am aware that both are likely to be necessary. Same thing then, with ADHD, a brain condition which in my experience is like having an engine with loads of power but almost no steering. With luck I’ll be able to help her learn to steer her mind earlier and more capably than I have done myself.
Just before the climax of The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo has a quiet moment with the Princesses Rhyme and Reason in the Castle in the Air. Milo mopes that he would have arrived sooner had he not made so many mistakes. Reason comforts him, saying, “you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do being right for the wrong reasons.” Rhyme agrees, and adds that he shouldn’t worry too much about whether or not what he’s learning is useful now and to take heart because “what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”
Sixty-two years ago, Norton Juster opened a portal for Milo that led him to see the world as beautiful and worth learning about. Thirty-odd years ago, I read it for the first time, and it gave me permission to “run and find out,” to borrow Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’s motto. Re-reading the book as an adult has shown me a way to articulate who I want to be as a parent. These are the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.
The final illustration in the book is of a rush of wind blowing the curtains open as Milo rises from his chair, eager to read and play and build. His last statement is “there’s so much to do right here.” It’s hard to keep that kind of earnest sense of purpose in the center of your heart and mind. The Phantom Tollbooth helps us remember why it’s important to do so.
*Hat tip to Jo Walton for introducing me to the term Suck Fairy in her excellent blog series collected as the book What Makes This Book So Great?
Tim Faught is a writer based in Savannah, Georgia. His interests include science fiction and fantasy, history, and folklore. He hasn’t got any books to plug here yet, but he’s working on it.