How does classic children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, use words themselves as a plot device?

Every work of literature relies on the dictionary. Many writers would say that the goal of fiction is to use powerful words to tell a story without calling attention to the words themselves. A small number of books, however, actually make words, meaning, and language their plot or even transform the workings of language into characters. This practice is called meta-fiction, and today we pay tribute to one meta-fictional work that famously stretches readers’ minds while making them laugh.

This year The Phantom Tollbooth turned 50—much older than its average reader. When it was first published, no one thought the smart, playful book would appeal to children, but author Norman Juster’s exploration of knowledge still resonates with children who find his puns and simple but insightful story meaningful.

You may think of puns as playful slips of language that make you groan, but The Phantom Tollbooth takes those moments where sound stops and meaning begins and creates an entire ridiculous world. Paronomasia is the technical word for “the use of a word in different senses or the use of words similar in sound to achieve a specific effect, as humor.” In short, punning. Not only does the humor in the book rely on language games, but the plot is actually propelled by them.

The Phantom Tollbooth follows a boy named Milo as he journeys through the magical Kingdom of Wisdom. This kingdom has two capital cites: Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. Dictionopolis, where all the world’s words and letters are traded, is ruled by King Azaz the Unabridged. On the opposite end of the kingdom, Digitopolis is ruled by the Mathemagician. Young princesses Rhyme and Reason were banished from the kingdom by King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician because the princesses said that numbers and letters were equally important to knowledge. It is Milo’s duty to reunite the kings of the opposing cities. Along the way, Milo meets memorable characters like the Humbug, a beetle-like insect, and the Whether Man, who doesn’t know whether it will rain or hail but only whether or not there will be weather. (How’s that for a tongue twister?)

Like Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth takes an impish look at how words define the world, testing the boundaries of meaning, but it also lays out a view of the world as it is: language and science are both essential to wisdom. The magical element of The Phantom Tollbooth isn’t the puns and the word play, but Juster captures our complex world and lays it simply down in the landscape of an imaginary one. So he gives us the Lands Beyond, where fantastical ideas that cannot live in the real world flourish. He introduces us to the fractional boy, who is the 0.58 of the 2.58 children in the average American family.

This book continues to delight children because it encourages kids to think without being condescending or pedantic. Put simply, it doesn’t lecture, but rather invites us to have fun with the building blocks of our world: letters and numbers.

Have you read The Phantom Tollbooth? Did it make you think about words and the world in a new way?