Tag Archives: Norton Juster

Disappearing act

Eleven years after writing about Kriktor the boa constrictor, my thoughts return to this old childhood favourite.

I was reminded of Kriktor’s disappearance from the library when reading about the young Lucy Mangan’s search for The Phantom Tollbooth. Some things are easier today, now that we can search all over the world for almost anything we want or need.

When Lucy’s teacher had read the book to the class, Lucy understandably wanted a copy for herself. But there were none; the library had no longer got it. My Phantom Tollbooth copy is an ex-library one, as was one of Lucy’s subsequent [three] copies, when she finally found them, years after falling in love with the book at school.

We can probably assume that the London libraries near her got rid of this book because they saw no need for it. My Kriktor’s tale was different. He was ‘borrowed’ and never returned. Used for a television programme, I suspect his disappearance was not unusual. Busy people in a busy studio won’t stop to consider one picture book, and whether it should be accompanied ‘home’ to the safety of its library, where more children can enjoy it.

There are other ways of losing books from libraries, of course. I have often thought of writing about the wicked ways of the world here, but stopped before giving anyone ideas.

In my early twenties I had a boss, who told me about this fantastically funny novel she liked, and how hard it had been to source another copy when hers went missing. Eventually one was discovered in a library, and she borrowed it, before going back there, apologising for ‘having spilled coffee’ on the book and offering to pay for it.

All right for her, and as it was anything but a literary marvel, possibly not the end of the world for the library. But it’s the principle of the thing that bothers me.

And then she lent it to me to read.

Before you get too excited, I gave her the book back when I’d read it. I have no recollection of either the title or the author, but she was right; it was very amusing and a fun read. And there was not a single stain of coffee anywhere.


The Phantom Tollbooth

It’s a bit Alice, this book I was telling you about last week. The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, so loved by Lucy Mangan that she owns three copies, just to be on the safe side.

Or maybe it’s the Marx Bros, or possibly the Wizard of Oz (which I haven’t read…).

First published in 1961, it forgets to talk down at children. It was written by not-an-author, so that could be why. And it was illustrated by his neighbour, Jules Feiffer, on not very good paper, because he had no idea this might become a classic.

Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer, The Phantom Tollbooth

Just as well, or they could both have got so full of themselves that the book would have been ruined.

The story is about a boy called Milo, who is bored by life and can’t be bothered with most things, until one day he finds a tollbooth in his room and takes his toy car and drives through it, as you do, discovering a whole new, very strange, world.

There is a deliciousness about the language. I mean, did you ever think about jumping to conclusions? There is an island called Conclusions, which you get to by jumping. Milo’s quest is to find Rhyme and Reason (now would be a good time to go looking for these two ladies again), and he and his companions Tock and Bug have many adventures in the oddest of places, while they search.

Strange they may be, but I found all the odd people a lot less odd than those in Alice. I could relate better to the Mathemagician, for instance. And Short Shrift? Obvious, really. And I am always in the Foothills of Confusion. Unless in The Doldrums.

I came to the book as an adult, so can’t see what the young Lucy Mangan saw. I do hope it’s not too late for the children of today to read something like The Phantom Tollbooth. We, and they, and Milo, need stories to engage, and to impart a little learning and to have some fun with language.

(But I imagine it would be hell to translate.)

Plus a phantom Phantom

And another thing I discovered at Waterstones. Book, I mean.

After reading Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, I knew I needed to read her beloved The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. I put it on my Christmas wish list and the Resident IT Consultant sourced a copy and gave me.

Because it was an ex-library copy, he took the liberty of first reading it himself, and he seemed a little confused as to why I’d want it. Well, I didn’t know, did I? Except if it was life-changing for Lucy, then…

Anyway, I was astounded to discover this very book for sale at Waterstones on Thursday. Seemed like the same cover and everything. It was – apparently – a 50th anniversary edition. Made sense to me.

Except, when I got home and searched, I could not find such a cover, and the only 50th edition seems to be from 2011 [book first published in the US in 1961].

Did I hallucinate this Phantom?

Reading it, I can understand how the book had such an impact on Lucy, experiencing it at school where an enlightened teacher read it to the the class. It’s perfect for reading aloud. Although I wonder about the many illustrations by Jules Feiffer. Did the teacher show them every page?

I like the quote [in Bookworm] from Jules, about how he’d have used nicer paper to draw on, had he known it was going to be a classic!

And dear Lucy owns at least three copies of this book. It’s reassuring to find someone who understands about safeguarding against a lack of books at some ghastly point in the future.