Module 8 — Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Module 8 — Fantasy

Bibliography

Juster, N.  (1961).  The phantom tollbooth.  New York, NY: Random House.

Summary

This whimsical fantasy follows the journey of a bored boy, Milo, who receives a surprise package containing a tollbooth that allows him to enter an alternate universe. The book is filled with clever puns and every kind of wordplay.  Milo encounters a host of wacky characters including King Azaz the Unabridged, ruler of Dictionopolis, and the Which known as Faintly Macabre and visits such places as the Island of Conclusions (to which he must, of course, jump).  As Milo learns to appreciate rather than ignore his surroundings, the reader is immersed in a topsy-turvy world of adventure.

My Impressions

I found the book’s beginning very strong and felt that the predicament of Milo, bored but restless and seemingly adrift, is one common to many people young and old. The wordplay is lots of fun and I admire Jules Feiffer’s drawings, especially the first drawing of Jules walking home from school in a cloud of dejection, observed by a seemingly sympathetic bird.  As the progresses I think that it loses some of its punch because the conflicts which Milo faces seem to have no real consequences.  I think the book could use some higher stakes toward the end so that the reader feels more engaged in Milo’s journey and quest.

Reviews

McNamee, G. (2006). Anniversaries: The phantom tollbooth [Review of the book The phantom tollbooth]. Kirkus Reviews, 74, 1086.

When we first encounter [Milo] in the opening moments of The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo is bored, bored, bored. Conveniently lacking parents and with few apparent responsibilities other than going to school, he lives in a house well appointed with toys, games, books and other goodies. Nothing can engage him. “I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February,” he grumbles. Milo has an incuriosity about the world and learning that would do the sitting president proud, and nothing, it seems, can shake him from his torpor.

Nothing, that is, save the arrival of a new toy: a cardboard tollbooth that affords Milo a gateway into an alternate universe designed by C.P. Snow.There he finds two royal brothers nearly at war over whether words or numbers are supreme. In the realm of Dictionopolis, beautiful ideas float about freely, but humbugs, trivialists, multivalent ministers, polysemic pedants and other rancorous types devalue their currency. In the land of Digitopolis, meanwhile, the good citizens know that the average family has 2.58 children and 1.3 cars (and, says one, “since I’m the only one who can drive three tenths of a car, I get to use it all the time”).

Learning to negotiate his way past the shoals of unreason and the demons of insincerity, to name just a couple of obstacles, teaches Milo a thing or two about the grownup world. It also gives him powerfully good reasons to arm his mind against dullness, obfuscation and lies, all of which thrive on just the incuriosity of which Milo had been a past master.

Juster taught his readers to question authority, to question generally, and certainly to leave a kindly mark on the world. Forty-five years old and showing no signs of age, The Phantom Tollbooth well deserves its status as a literary classic. It’s not bad reading for kids, either.

[Review of The phantom tollbooth, by N. Juster]. (2005, Sep/Oct). Connect Magazine, 19, 18-19.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster (Random House, 1961), still holds up as a classic adventure for fourth through eighthgraders. “It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,” says Milo, the hero of the story. He receives the gift of a tollbooth and because there’s nothing else to do, travels through the tollbooth in a toy car. He first enters Dictionopolis and picks up Tock, the watchdog who ticks. They continue along a route visible on a map printed on the end papers of the book. In Dictionopolis, they meet the Spelling Bee, the Humbug, and Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Which. Many conventions of time, space, logic, computation and expression are playfully rearranged in this tale. (The Island of Conclusions may only be reached by jumping. At one point, the Humbug wants to travel via miles because it’s quicker, but Milo wants to travel in inches because it’s shorter.)

Using in the Library

Give examples of puns from the book — the watchdog Tock, for example, objects to Milos manner of speaking: “‘KILLING TIME!’ roared the dog–so furiously that his alarm went off. ‘It’s bad enough wasting time without killing it!’ And he shuddered at the thought.” — and challenge students to find others. Have students write down and perhaps illustrate various puns or wordplay from the book. Students may also find sources in the library that contain examples of word play, idioms, or riddles.

The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking: Book One by Patrick Ness

Module 8 — Science Fiction

Bibliography

Ness, P.  (2008).  The knife of never letting go: Chaos walking: Book one. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

Summary

Every person in Prentisstown (a “New World” on a colonized planet) is continually assaulted by the noise of everyone else.  A virus has killed all the women and left the men unable to tune out or silence the thoughts of others, and this “noise” makes solitude or secrets impossible.    When the 12-year-old narrator, Todd (the last colony’s last boy, soon to become a man at the age of 13), discovers a place in a nearby swamp that is free of noise, he begins to question beliefs he had thought to be self-evident.  After he is forced to flee into the swampland, chased by a vengeful preacher and other men of the colony, Todd encounters a girl, making it even more clear that his world is not as it had always seemed.

My Impressions

In this world a never-ending noise seems like a curse, but the barrage of information is perhaps not that unlike our current world in the digital age.  Patrick Ness finds creative ways to express the constant bombardment, including handwritten text with words that crowd together and overwhelm the book’s standard manuscript.  There’s a lot to think about in this book, but it’s also a page-turner that keeps you wondering what’s next.

Reviews

Chipman, I. (2008, Sept. 1). [Review of the book The knife of never letting go]. Booklist, 105, 97.

/*Starred Review*/ Chased by a madman preacher and possibly the rest of his townsfolk as well, young Todd Hewitt flees his settlement on a planet where war with the natives has killed all the women and infected the men with a germ that broadcasts their thoughts aloud for all to hear. This cacophanous thought-cloud is known as Noise and is rendered with startling effectiveness on the page. The first of many secrets is revealed when Todd discovers an unsettling hole in the Noise, and quickly realizes that he lives in a much different world than the one he thought he did. Some of the central conceits of the drama can be hard to swallow, but the pure inventiveness and excitement of the telling more than make up for it. Narrated in a sort of pidgin English with crack dramatic and comic timing by Todd and featuring one of the finest talking-dog characters anywhere, this troubling, unforgettable opener to the Chaos Walking trilogy is a penetrating look at the ways in which we reveal ourselves to one another, and what it takes to be a man in a society gone horribly wrong. The cliffhanger ending is as effective as a shot to the gut.

Honig, M. (2008, Nov. 1). [Review of the book The knife of never letting go]. School Library Journal, 54, 133.

Gr 9 Up— Todd Hewitt lives in a world in which all women are dead, and the thoughts of men and animals are constantly audible as Noise. Graphically represented by a set of scratchy fonts and sentence fragments that run into and over each other, Noise is an oppressive chaos of words, images, and sounds that makes human company exhausting and no thought truly private. The history of these peculiar circumstances unfolds over the course of the novel, but Ness’s basic world-building is so immediately successful that readers, too, will be shocked when Todd and his dog, Manchee, first notice a silence in the Noise. Realizing that he must keep the silence secret from the town leaders, he runs away, and his terrified flight with an army in pursuit makes up the backbone of the plot. The emotional, physical, and intellectual drama is well crafted and relentless. Todd, who narrates in a vulnerable and stylized voice, is a sympathetic character who nevertheless makes a few wrenching mistakes. Manchee and Aaron, a zealot preacher, function both as characters and as symbols. Tension, suspense, and the regular bombardment of Noise are palpable throughout, mitigated by occasional moments of welcome humor. The cliff-hanger ending is unexpected and unsatisfying, but the book is still a pleasure for sophisticated readers comfortable with the length and the bleak, literary tone.

Using in the Library

Patrick Ness uses handwritten text (sometimes overlapping and dominant) to show the overwhelming bombardment of noise.  Are there other ways that authors can express ideas through the type, placement, or structure of printed or handwritten text?  Ask students for ideas and then present examples of concrete poetry, which uses the poem’s physical shape to present an idea associated with the words of the poem.

Shown above is “The Sawfish,” from A Poke in the I, Paul B. Janeczko’s excellent collection of concrete poetry.  After reading a few examples of concrete poetry with students, discuss how Ness has used the text to express important ideas in the The Knife of Never Letting Go.  Challenge students to write examples of concrete poetry or of words or phrases (using word puzzles, for example) that express ideas through words and form.

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About Boyd Waltman

Boyd Waltman is a film editor in Houston, Texas.
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