How I Learned to Grow Down and No-Lesser Lessons from The Phantom Tollbooth

I used to agonize over whether Brother Bear had been so named before Sister Bear was born. When a seemingly ...

I used to agonize over whether Brother Bear had been so named before Sister Bear was born. When a seemingly autonomous silhouette traversed the span of my bedroom walls at night, I wondered if Peter Pan needed to be sewn to his shadow again. I dreaded my 11th birthday like an impending mid-life crisis.

The stories I loved as a child were not so well behaved as to exist solely between their covers. The Berenstein Bears, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, and, of course, “The Phantom Tollbooth”: Chroma-colored outside their bindings and into the chapters of my life, un-(poetically)-licensed. This week, Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” tick-tocks its way to the 50th anniversary of its publication. Many of its one-time devotees have probably grown up too much to remember how to grow down. But for some, the Unabridged allure still holds.

I first followed Milo into the Lands Beyond after covertly lifting the turquoise title from my older brother’s bookshelf. He’d stored it between such mature literature as “The Westing Game” and every Cam Jansen novel ever published. I took Milo-dramatic pains to stealthily slip the material from its perch and spent the subsequent days jumping to the Isle of Conclusions, wading through the Sea of Knowledge and finding Rhyme and Reason where it seemed there was none.

The plot may have progressed to the Doldrums, but the story never did. My memories of that first read are downright sepia-toned. And for a girl raised on a balanced diet of “The Elements of Style,” Phantom’s verbal wit was mathemagical.

It left me spellbound in Dictionopolis; I was rendered speechless by the Soundkeeper. It left me with a bad case of the puns. Its alle- was pretty, bloody -gory, but somehow it never landed in the Pedantic Ocean. Milo and I were just a pair of snarky know-it-all kids, but Phantom trusted us with a message that I’m still learning: time is precious.

In my junior year of high school, fighting the “ahn-WEE” that I hadn’t been able to pronounce when Juster first introduced it to me, I picked up “The Phantom Tollbooth” once more. I toted the text around, fancying myself a wannabe-Maoist, the worn blue just peeking out of my backpack. Anachronistic fellow travelers shared transcendent accounts of their trips to Wisdom’s Castle in the Air.

Happy Birthday, Tollbooth; you are one fine chick. Sorry all I got you was this article. What can I say? I’m cheep, cheep, cheep.