Phantom Tollbooth Inspires Future Writer

by Steve Barancik
(Tucson, AZ)

The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

How Norton Juster and The Phantom Tollbooth birthed my imagination.

I was not a very inspired child.

I was limited in my curiosity and my interests. I read a lot, but I did so joylessly.

I remember some well-meaning relative introducing me to The Hardy Boys with the first three books in the billion book series.

I devoured them. I don't think they particularly interested me, and I know they didn't inspire me. As mysteries, they certainly weren't about a reader's imagination.

Nope. "Just the facts, ma'am."

I remember reading them in the same way I watched brainless TV reruns.

Mindlessly. With a dull stare.

My folks thought it was great that I was reading. Then they noticed I was reading the same books, over and over.

Enter The Phantom Tollbooth

I'm pretty sure it was a gift from my parents. I don't even know if they were familiar with it. Published in 1961, the year I was born, it certainly couldn't have been one of the books from their childhoods.

The cover was certainly different. Kind of morosely whimsical, though I certainly didn't know the word whimsical.

I think I was drawn in initially by my instant identification with the main character, Milo.

Milo was bored by life. I suspect I was too. (No condition for a child to be in!)

Well, Milo comes home one day to an unexpected gift: a tollbooth...and the means with which to drive through it. Once he does, he finds himself in an unreal world and finds fascination in it almost despite himself!

I remember the absurdity of that world. I was rather rule-bound at the time, and it seemed a world where rules were routinely broken. That was quite freeing to my spirit.

Milo, it should be noted, is unable to return to the magical world beyond the tollbooth, because once he learns to take an interest in his surroundings it's a skill he's able to apply to the real world.

I think the book did for me what the tollbooth did for Milo.

Would I have grown up to make my living in a creative field without The Phantom Tollbooth? I wonder. Perhaps something else would have sparked my stunted imagination.

Perhaps not.

And it's only in revisiting the book that I realize the extent to which it's about wordplay. Milo meets a "Which," a "Whether Man," and of course "Tock," a "watchdog." (Made of, yes, a watch. See the cover!)

Could it be also that The Phantom Tollbooth opened me up to the possibility of being a writer, of making words dance for the amusement of others?

I suspect so.

So join me, please, in offering a "toast" to Norton Juster. And please...

Butter both sides.

The Phantom Tollbooth on Amazon.

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