The 50th Anniversary of "The Phantom Tollbooth"
Published on October 11, 2011 by Sara Foss

At The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik considers a classic of children's literature.

Here's an excerpt:

"Our cult of decade anniversaries—the tenth of 9/11, the twentieth of 'Nevermind'—are for the most part mere accidents of our fingers: because we’ve got five on each hand, we count things out in tens and hundreds. And yet the fifty-year birthday of a good children’s book marks a real passage, since it means that the book hasn’t been passed just from parent to child but from parent to child and on to child again. A book that has crossed that three-generation barrier has a good chance at permanence. So to note the fiftieth birthday of the closest thing that American literature has to an 'Alice in Wonderland' of its own, Norton Juster’s 'The Phantom Tollbooth'—with illustrations, by Jules Feiffer, that are as perfectly matched to Juster’s text as Tenniel’s were to Carroll’s—is to mark an anniversary that matters. (And there are two new books for the occasion, both coming out this month from Knopf: 'The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth,' with notes by Leonard Marcus; and a fiftieth-anniversary edition, with a series of short essays by notable readers about the effect the book has had on their lives.)

This reader, from the first generation, received a copy not long after the book appeared, and can still recall its curious force. How odd the first chapter seemed, with so little time taken up with the kind of persuasive domestic detail that fills the beginning chapters of the first Narnia book or 'From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler' or 'Mary Poppins.' We’re quickly introduced to the almost anonymous, and not very actively parented, Milo, a large-eyed boy in a dark shirt—a boy too bored to look up from the pavement as he walks home from school. Within paragraphs, a strange package has arrived in his room. It turns out to be a cardboard tollbooth, waiting to be assembled. Milo obediently sets it up, pays his fare (he has an enviable electric car already parked by his bed), and is rushed away to the Lands Beyond, a fantastical world of pure ideas. The book breaks the first rule of “good” children’s literature: we’re in the plot before we know the people."

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