Posts Tagged ‘Twentieth Century Children’s Literature’

When I was discussing about favourite books with one of my bookish friends a few years back, my friend told me that Norton Juster’s ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ was one of her top-five alltime favourite books. I had never heard of the book or Norton Juster before and I wondered what this book was about. I couldn’t get the book then, but recently while I was looking for something else online, this book popped up and I thought it was time to get it. Here is what I think..

The Phantom Tollbooth By Norton Juster

‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ is about a boy named Milo, who is not interested in anything – he finds that most of the things taught in school don’t seem to have any purpose and are not exciting and life is not exciting in general. One day when he comes back home, he discovers a big package in his room. He opens it and finds a tollbooth in it with instructions on how to fit it and use it. He fits it and then takes his small car – the toy version that children drive inside the house – and pays the toll and drives past the tollbooth as instructed. He suddenly discovers that he is no longer in his home but is out on the road and there are trees on both sides of the road. The journey takes him to strange lands, he makes friends with a dog called Tock, a bug called Humbug, enters a city called Dictionopolis and meets the king and his ministers, learns about the kingdom of wisdom, discovers that things are not what they used to be because the princesses Rhyme and Reason are no longer there and with the king’s blessings, Milo and his friends Tock and Humbug have many adventures and try to rescue the princesses. Whether they succeed in their mission forms the rest of the story.


I loved ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’. The story is interesting, the wordplay is wonderful, the commentary it offers on the human condition is very insightful, the characters are likeable and the ending is perfect. The book pays homage to the masters – to Lewis Carroll and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ with its wordplay, especially in dialogues like this – “being lost is never a matter of not knowing where you are; it’s a matter of not knowing where you aren’t – and I don’t care at all about where I’m not”, to C.S.Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ by showing how opening the door of a closet (in this case how crossing a playful tollbooth) can lead you to a totally different and fascinating world, to George Gamov’s works with its references to the highest number (being three, according to the Hottentots, which is described in Gamov’s ‘One, Two, Three…Infinity’) and to the ladder of infinity and to Russell’s paradox which Milo uses to solve a problem and get ahead in his plan the rescue the princesses. There was even a passage which talked about asking the right question – “That may be true (that it is absurd), but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong? If you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself.” It made me wonder whether Douglas Adams got inspired by that sentence when he wrote that scene in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ about the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Two of my favourite scenes in the story were the one in which the conductor conducts a symphony in the morning for the sun to rise and and the one in which the soundkeeper describes different kinds of sounds and how they are initially produced and then collected and categorized. I loved the character of the soundkeeper.

‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ is a story that can be read by children of all ages, whether one is eight or eighty. When I was halfway through the book, I thought that I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it as a child, but now after having finished it, I think that though I would have enjoyed the story and the wordplay as a child, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate some of the above references and the depth of some of the insights as much. I think readers of different ages will enjoy the book in different ways.

The edition of the book I read had an introduction by Diana Wynne Jones which is quite interesting to read (she takes potshots at the way maths is taught at school which made me smile) and a note by the author at the end in which he talks about how he got to writing the book, which is quite fascinating.

I read this about Haruki Murakami somewhere – “Critics have variously likened him to Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Pynchon – a roster so ill assorted as to suggest Murakami is in fact an original.” I think we can say something similar about Norton Juster. He is unique and so is this book. I know now why my friend loved this book. It is sad that Juster didn’t write a sequel to it or another book set in the same universe.

I am pretty sure that I will read ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ again one of these days. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

The Different Kinds of Sound

“She was generous to a fault and provided us with all the sound we could possibly use : for singing as we worked, for bubbling pots of stew; for the chop of an axe and the crash of a tree, for the creak of a hinge and the hoot of an owl, for the squish of a shoe in the mud and the friendly tapping of rain on the roof, and for the sweet music of pipes and the sharp snap of winter ice cracking on the ground.”


The Different Kinds of Silence

“Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are sounds? But, sadly enough, no one pays any attention to them these days. Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause in a roomful of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re all alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful, if you listen carefully.”


“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare”

      “Many years ago, on this very spot, there was a beautiful city of fine houses and inviting spaces, and no one who lived here was ever in a hurry. The streets were full of wonderful things to see and the people would often stop to look at them.”
“Didn’t they have anywhere to go?” asked Milo.
“To be sure,” continued Alec. “But, as you know, the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that. Then one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes, you would arrive at your destination much more quickly. Soon everyone was doing it. They all rushed down the avenues and hurried along the boulevards seeing nothing of the wonders and beauties of their city as they went.”
Milo remembered the many times he’d done the very same thing; and, as hard as he tried, there were even things on his own street that he couldn’t remember.
“No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.”


Have you read Norton Juster’s ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read it Astrid Lindgren’s ‘Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter’ ever since Bina (from ‘If You Can Read This’) told me that it is one of her favourite books. Happily, I got a chance to read it this week. Here is what I think.

Ronia The Robbers Daughter By Astrid Lindgren

‘Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter’ is about Ronia who is born to the robber chieftain Matt and his wife Lovis on a stormy day. She brings happiness and delight to her parents and to everyone who is part of the robber gang. She grows up into a young girl who is very active, energetic, intelligent and adventurous. Then the time comes for her parents to let her go outside the fort and spend time in the woods by herself. Her father gives her a list of things that she should be careful about. Then Ronia sets out for the woods, spends time exploring and discovering new things, plays and comes back. She also discovers a boy there called Birk who is also exploring the woods. When she discovers that he is from a rival robber gang headed by Borka, there are some initial word-wars between them but gradually Ronia warms up to Birk and he does so too and they become friends, like a sister and a brother. When Ronia gets into trouble with the Unearthly Ones, Birk saves her. But, unfortunately, Ronia’s and Birk’s fathers don’t see eye-to-eye and are fierce enemies. And Birk’s father’s robber gang has moved into the adjacent part of Matt’s fort which heightens the tension between the two families and gangs. One thing leads to another and things come to a crisis point. It leads to Ronia leaving her home and going to the forest, finding Birk there and living there with him in the BearCave. They have some beautiful adventures, some wonderful times and some dangerous scrapes. What happens to them and whether they are able to get back to their families and whether Matt and Borka reconcile with each other form the rest of the story. I won’t tell you more. You should read the book and find out the rest of the story yourself.


I loved ‘Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter’. It was charming and beautiful. I enjoyed reading about Ronia’s time at home and the delight and joy she brings to her parents and the robber gang which is like her family. I also loved reading about the adventures that Ronia has in the forest with Birk. I loved the way the story depicts the relationship between parents and children when children start growing up and start asking uncomfortable questions and having opinions of their own.


I loved most of the characters in the story – Ronia, her parents Matt and Lovis, her brother Birk. One of my favourite characters was old Noddle-Pete, an old man who used to be a robber in Matt’s gang, but who is now an old wise man who shares his wisdom with the robber gang. One of my favourite scenes is the one in which Noddle-Pete says that he doesn’t have much time left and he is going to die soon and Matt asks him to stop talking like that. The description of that scene goes like this :


      “But I’m going to leave my own two little tufts of hair alone. No unnecessary fuss, for I’ll soon be under the ground,” he said, stroking his bald pate contentedly.

      Then Matt flung his might arms around Noddle-Pete and lifted him a good way off the floor. “You stop that about dying! I haven’t lived a day of my earthly life without you yet, you old fool, so you can’t just go and die behind my back, as you very well know!”

      “We shall see, little boy, we shall see,” said Noddle-Pete, looking thoroughly pleased with himself.


I also loved the animal characters in the story – the mare Lia and the young wild horses Villain and Savage and the fox cubs which play around and bring a lot of joy to Ronia and Birk. One of my favourite parts of the book was when Ronia and Birk save Lia the mare, and Lia allows them to milk her and nearly becomes a tame horse and then one day she is pregnant again and she stops giving milk and she goes back to her herd and to being a wild horse. I loved the description of the parting scene between the two children and the mare :


They stayed with the mare a long time, and when they left her she followed them a little way through the light summer night. It was almost as if she understood that it was over now, this strange time she had been living through, which was not at all like the rest of her life as a wild horse. The little human beings who had made strange things happen were now going away from her and she stood there for a time, watching them until they disappeared among the spruce trees. Then she turned back to her herd.


I also found it interesting that the magic creatures depicted in the book are mostly nice and harmless (except the harpies) while real danger comes from real animals like bears and wolves and the sheriff’s men.


One of my favourite passages from the book was this – it made me think of Ray Bradbury’s delightful ‘Dandelion Wine’.


“I’m drinking in the summer like the wild bee sucking up honey,” she said. “I’m gathering it together in a big lump of summer, to live on when…when it’s not summer any more. Do you know what there is in it?…It’s a whole batch of sunrises, and blueberry bushes covered with berries, and the freckles you have on your arms, and moonlight over the river in the evening, and starry skies, and the woods in the noonday heat when the sun is shining on the fir trees, and the small rain in the evening, and squirrels and foxes and hares and elk and all the wild horses we know, and when we swim and when we ride in the woods – well, it’s a whole batch of everything that is summer.”

      “You’re a good summer baker,” said Birk. “Keep it up!”


I can’t believe that I waited so long to read ‘Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter’. I loved it. It is one of my favourite reads of the year and it is a book that I will read again. I think I must be the last person on the planet to read it, but in case that is not true and you haven’t read it yet, I would heartily recommend it.


Have you read ‘Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Astrid Lindgren book?

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