26 September, 2002
THIS BOOK IS GOOD
on the upcoming performance
l a u r a p u c k e t t
On October 3rd the man who wrote the screenplay to Popeye and his friend, who describes himself as a "professional eater," are coming to Duke Performance Hall. Not to eat spinach from cans and perform amazing feats of strength on stage, but because they illustrated and wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, which fifth graders are still reading in Davidson elementary school today. Still, why are the creators of a book for ten-year-olds coming to Number nine, the Princeton of the South, Davidson? Because the book is good. And because they are two old friends who still like to tell stories and draw pictures. And the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenberg County and Davidson College are willing to pay them to keep doing it as part of the 2002 Novello Reading Festival. Juster will extemporize stories and Feiffer will simultaneously illustrate them as they are projected for the audience to see. While they are still riding dynamic-duo fame from this 1961 book, they deserve credit for collectively teaching architecture, writing screen plays, drawing Pulitzer Prize winning cartoons, winning an Academy Award for an animated film, and publishing dozens of children's books.
In The Phantom Tollbooth, whose major reading audience is fifth graders, Norton Juster nevertheless transforms our daily use of language by taking idioms literally and creating creatures and places that are embodiments of abstract ideas. In The Phantom Tollbooth, a boy named Milo journeys through the Lands Beyond. He wanders through the cities of Dictionopolis, Reality, Illusions, and Digitopolis. He jumps to the island of Conclusions, gets lost in the Doldrums, makes the sun rise in the Forest of Sight, and traverses the Mountains of Ignorance to release the Princesses Rhyme and Reason (the only ones who can return the Kingdom of Wisdom to a state of order and sense).
The esoteric lessons are made accessible by Tock, the watch-dog whose alarm-clock in his side goes off when he's in danger; Kakofonous A. Dischord, Dr. of Dissonance, who keeps the sound of "a blindfolded octopus unwrap[ing] a cellophane covered bathtub" in a vial; a banquet where you can get sick of eating too many half-baked ideas for dessert (such as "the moon is made of green cheese"); and an orchestra of thousands who play morning, noon, and night to make the colors appear in the world.
Juster's story is assisted by Jules Feiffer's pen and ink illustrations. These sparse drawings capture the book's whimsy and support Juster's concretization of abstract ideas by providing visual images to go with such characters as the Gross Exaggeration and the awful Dynne.
Feiffer's diminutive and wide-eyed Milo is just the type of boy who "wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered," yet he builds a tollbooth he received in the mail, pays his toll, and drives into this world where cities disappear because the residents stopped looking at them and an entire valley is mute because the residents misused sounds.
The people Milo meets exaggeratedly embody his own apathy and oblivion. He can see how absurd their actions and obsessions are, and he ends up learning lessons himself. Like any good Buddhist he learns that there is no destination, only the present moment, for "the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what's in between." He learns that "whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else." Like any good optimist he learns "so many things are possible just so long as you don't know they're impossible." And like any good Davidson student, he learns that there actually is a point to "learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is, or how to spell February." Now, if only we could learn to "see everything from the tender moss in a sidewalk crack to the glow of the farthest star--and, most important of all, [to] see things as they really are, not just as they seem to be." Our toll is a free ticket and the world we enter extemporaneous, but the show starts at seven, and Juster encourages all students in the spirit of procrastination: "The secret, at least in my life, is that if you want to do something you have to do something else to get away from that and that's the thing that turns out to be worthwhile--whatever you're doing to escape from doing what you're supposed to be doing."
author norton juster needs some lovin.' quarters only, please.