Jules Feiffer’s illustration of the map of The Lands Beyond for <em>The Phantom Tollbooth</em>. (Photo credit: Random House)

Jules Feiffer’s illustration of the map of The Lands Beyond for The Phantom Tollbooth. (Photo credit: Random House)

The Editor’s Desk: A life changing moment

To a bookish 10-year-old, The Phantom Tollbooth was a wonderful revelation of what words could do

I’m not often greatly affected by “celebrity” deaths, beyond a mild “Oh, that’s a shame.” Two weeks ago, however, when my son sent me a brief message asking simply “Did you hear that Norton Juster has died?” I felt as if someone had punched me in the gut.

Juster was an architect and planner, and professor emeritus of design at Hampshire College, but his claim to fame is as the author of several acclaimed children’s books, one of which was The Phantom Tollbooth, first published in 1961 and instantly hailed as a classic.

The book tells the story of a young, terminally bored boy named Milo, who one day finds a mysterious tollbooth in his apartment, along with a map to The Lands Beyond and an instruction leaflet that ends with the words “Results are not guaranteed, but if not perfectly satisfied, your wasted time will be refunded.”

Having nothing better to do, Milo jumps in his miniature car, drives through the tollbooth, and finds himself in The Lands Beyond. To try to summarize the book would be fruitless; suffice it to say that Juster creates one of the most magical, enchanting, fantastic, frightening, mystifying, and delightful adventures ever committed to paper.

Saying that the book had an effect on me would be as much an understatement as claiming that water tends to be wet. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that The Phantom Tollbooth changed my life, and set me on the path to where I am now, 47 years after my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Hehn, introduced me to it by reading it aloud to our class.

By age 10 I was a voracious reader, devouring fairly stolid children’s fare such as Nancy Drew, the Famous Five, and Trixie Belden, books whose prose was workmanlike at best: it got the job done, but that was all. Tollbooth took my breath away with its flights of fancy and giddy wordplay, which I only truly began to appreciate when I bought a paperback copy through the Scholastic Book Club a short while later and was able to read it for myself. That was when Juster’s brilliance really shone, in characters such as Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Which, or the Whether Man (“It’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be”).

There was the Senses (not census) Taker, and King Azaz the Unabridged, and the Mathemagician. There was loyal Tock, the (literal) watchdog, and the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, ready to take the words right out of your mouth. “Perhaps we should wait until morning,” says Milo, to which the Wordsnatcher replies “They’ll be mourning for you soon enough.” There was the Island of Expectations, which can only be reached by jumping, and the Mountains of Ignorance, inhabited by such terrible creatures as the Threadbare Excuse, the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, and the Gross Exaggeration.

It was the first time I had experienced the true magic of the written word, and seen what a brilliant mind could do with the English language. Everyday things and concepts suddenly took on new, playful meaning. Here were puns and double entendres, irony and allusion, intellectual absurdity; things I did not know I had lacked, or which even existed, until Juster’s book came into my life. I had been sitting in a dim-lit room, and suddenly someone had turned on the lights.

At the end of the book, when he has successfully completed his quest, Milo is given a piece of information that had been withheld earlier: that it was impossible. However, as King Azaz and the Mathemagician explain, “If we’d told you then, you might not have gone — and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

It is a piece of advice I have never forgotten. Thank you, Mr. Juster; I am forever indebted, appreciative, grateful, glad, and beholden to you and your wonderful work.



editorial@accjournal.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Columnist

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A Quesnel resident receives a shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine earlier this month. (Photo credit: Cassidy Dankochik/Quesnel Cariboo Observer)
IH says COVID-19 vaccines safe despite claims of Lytton physician

Doctor makes unsubstantiated claims about serious side effects of Moderna vaccine

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
211 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health over the weekend

Currently, there are 875 active cases of the virus in the region

A nurse prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. As of April 19, more than 230,000 doses have been administered across the Interior Health region. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
More than 230K doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered across Interior Health

A total of 220,216 first doses and 13,775 second doses have been given to residents across the B.C. Interior

B.C. homeowners are being urged to take steps to prepare for the possibility of a flood, this includes protecting one’s home by moving equipment and other assets from these areas to higher ground. (J.R. Rardon)
‘Entire province faces risk’: B.C. citizens urged to prepare for above-normal spring flood season

High-streamflow advisory issued for the Cariboo Region and areas including Williams Lake, Quesnel and Prince George

Elvira D’Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
110 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Provincial health officers announced 1,005 new cases throughout B.C.

FILE – NDP Leader John Horgan, right, and local candidate Mike Farnworth greet one another with an elbow bump during a campaign stop in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday, September 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. won’t be using random individual road stops to enforce travel rules: Safety Minister

Minister Mike Farnworth says travel checks only being considered at major highway junctions, ferry ports

Interior Health issued warning April 18, 2021 of crack cocaine in Penticton that looks similar to the substance above containing fentanyl. (Interior Health photo)
Interior Health warns of fentanyl contaminated crack-cocaine in Penticton

There have been recent reports of overdose associated with the use of this substance

..
Abbotsford nurse at ‘breaking point’ pleads with public to take COVID-19 seriously

Instagram post urges general population to stay home, wear a mask and get vaccinated

A native-to-B.C. wild queen bee (bombus melanopygus for those in the know) feeds on a periwinkle flower. (Submitted/Sarah Johnson, Native Bee Society of BC)
B.C.’s wild bees need messy gardens to survive

The year-long nesting period makes habitat a primary concern for wild bees

FILE – Health-care workers wave to people clapping and yelling thank you to the frontline workers during the 7 p.m.-tribute outside the Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver, B.C. Wednesday, April 8, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. nurses issue plea for all to follow health orders as hospitalizations spike

Nurses worried about strain COVID-19 is having on hospital capacity, care

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. The University of Victoria says Williams has resigned effective immediately. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
University of Victoria women’s rowing coach resigns by mutual agreement

Lawsuit filed last summer accused Barney Williams of verbal abuse

Former B.C. premier Christy Clark. (Black Press Media files)
Former B.C. premier to testify at money laundering hearing today

Attorney General David Eby has been added to the witness list as well

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. to table budget that’s expected to deal with COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

Robinson released a fiscal update last December that said the impact of the pandemic on B.C.’s economy was uncertain

Most Read