Everybody loves THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. It is many of my friends’ absolute all-time favorite kids book. I know I read it as a kid. I know I didn’t like it. I know I didn’t read it again. And that’s all I remember, and somehow even though everyone was always saying how much they loved it, I never picked it up again until now. Anyway, that’s the back story.
My feeling on recent reading is this: good book, but I totally can see why it hit wrong with me as a kid. Because the number one adjective I want to use for THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is clever. Its incredibly clever. Its witty. The wordplay and puns are great, and I’m sure I would have picked up on them and enjoyed them back then as well.* But clever and witty alone does not a great book make. And that I think is my problem with this one. I did enjoy it. But I wasn’t really engrossed at all – there’s very little character-building, the characters are all kind of purposefully caricatures, and even when feelings or reactions by people were described, they were just kind of stated very matter of fact. I never actually found myself identifying with anyone. And while the constant humor kept the story from feeling like there was too much moralizing, it was nevertheless very clear that at each place, and with each character, a not-so-subtle point was being made about modern life, the way people behave, etc; to the point where those points felt in and of themselves to be the purpose of the story. Again, not something that really draws you (or at least me) in.
My other issue was that even plot-wise, the story kind of reads like a litany of “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” Not much variety in pacing, and no time spent once the “point” of each episode had taken place – just “ok, that happened, next.” I’m being a little more negative than I really felt while I was reading the book – I really did enjoy it. But I can also totally see how as a kid I would have gotten bored. Puns are funny. A few pages or even a few chapters of clever wordplay and obvious-but-still-fun set-ups are fun. But a whole book of that and nothing else just isn’t enough.
Actually, now that I’m writing this and thinking it through further, I feel like a lot of the pieces of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH would make for great picture books – short, clever, funny stories, with imaginative premises, and a lot of great illustrations already included. But a whole series of those just strung together one after another doesn’t quite do it for me. And that’s why I can’t summon the love of this book that so many folks have (although I’m glad that I now see why they do love it. Especially as so many of my friends are language-loving types), and why I probably read it once, was kind of amused and kind of bored, and was left without a strong enough impression to lead me to pick it up again.
*I was raised in a very pun-filled household. In my family, birthdays and other card-giving occasions are basically a standing competition to see who can find the card with the best pun or bad joke. There have been some real prize finds over the years.