This year, the celebrated children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth turned 50. It’s a fantastic story about a boy named Milo “who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.” It’s a book about being bored and uninterested, and discovering a whole new way of looking at, well, just about everything. Five decades later, the book still rings true — perhaps even more than ever, as our kids are constantly bombarded with the next new thing in the hopes of staving off boredom.
Norton Juster happened to live upstairs from Jules Feiffer at the time he was writing The Phantom Tollbooth, which is how Feiffer came to illustrate the story in his inimitable style: loose and full of movement. It’s hard to picture Milo and Tock the watchdog looking like anything else. This year, Random House published two new versions of the book to celebrate its anniversary. The first, The Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition, includes the original story printed as it appeared 50 years ago (down to the pagination), in a nice hardcover with a clear plastic dust jacket. (I’ll admit — I’m not hugely fond of the dust jacket, which is kind of slick and hard to keep on.)
The 50th Anniversary Edition also includes several essays: there’s a brief intro by Juster himself, explaining briefly how he came to write The Phantom Tollbooth to begin with. (Key word: procrastination.) That’s followed by an “appreciation” by Maurice Sendak, written in 1996 for the book’s 35th anniversary. But at the back of the book are several more essays celebrating Milo’s journey, some from writers you may have heard of and some you haven’t. There’s Michael Chabon, whose article ran earlier this year in the New York Post. Also included are Jeanne Birdsall, author of the Penderwicks series; Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games; Philip Pullman, best known for His Dark Materials; and Mo Willems of the famed pigeon series.
There are also a few people that you may not have heard of, but their reflections on the book are also insightful. One by Bev Walnoha recounts her own experiences using the The Phantom Tollbooth in her fifth grade class for thirty-three years, having her students write letters to Juster and exploring these new lands along with Milo. Maria Nikolajeva, a Russian-born professor of education, was especially moving, as she described how the “arbitrary and incomprehensible” rules in the book reminded her of her own country, and how children’s literature can be a very subversive, incendiary thing in a totalitarian regime. For her, The Phantom Tollbooth took on specific, very important meanings, teaching her to think independently.
If you already own a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, you may not need this new edition. However, I know that I recently had to replace my old paperback copy (which I’d had since I was a kid) because it was completely falling apart. It’s good to know that this hardcover will hold up to repeated readings — which it certainly will get.
The other new edition is The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth. This also preserves the same pagination, but with extra-wide margins for all the annotations by Leonard Marcus, a children’s literature scholar (and also children’s book writer). If you’re a fan, this is a treasure trove of marginalia: Marcus explains the origins of many of the phrases and idioms used throughout the book, relates earlier versions of passages, and even includes some of Feiffer’s sketches and studies for particular illustrations.
The introductory essay by Marcus is also extensive, informative, and very well-researched. He discusses Juster’s life in a lot of detail, talking about his childhood anxieties about inanimate objects, his literary influences, his education. He then talks about Feiffer (without quite as much detail, but still a good deal of information), and then relates how the two ended up working together. Finally, there is quite a lot about The Phantom Tollbooth itself, the writing and illustration process, its reception early on and later. The entire essay is about 30 pages long, and is fascinating reading.
The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth isn’t one that you can easily set in your lap while curled up in a cozy chair — it’s more of a desktop reading book, and not a replacement for your battered paperback copy. But if Milo, Tock, and the Humbug have captured your imagination, it’s a terrific way to delve deeper into their world.
Disclosure: GeekDad received review copies of both books.