Archives for posts with tag: Fables

Timeless Classic is an overused phrase but it genuinely applies to this week’s choice – “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster. This American children’s story was first published in 1961 with quirky black and white illustrations by Jules Feiffer. I don’t think it has ever been out of print. “The Phantom Tollbooth” is available as an ebook but I’d particularly recommend the HarperCollins Essential Modern Classics paperback which has a lovely introduction by the much-missed Diana Wynne Jones.

This is a story about a bored boy called Milo. Nothing really interests him and he regards “the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.” One day an unexpected package is delivered. It contains a purple tollbooth, some coins to put in it, a rule book and a map of places that Milo has never heard of. Milo decides that he might as well play at driving his small electric car past the tollbooth. When he does, Milo finds himself on an unfamiliar country road which takes him to a place called Expectations. After a baffling chat with the Whether Man, Milo plans to reach the city of Dictionopolis but gets lost in the Doldrums.

Milo is rescued by a Watchdog called Tock (who goes tick) and reaches Dictionopolis, the city of words, where he meets a loud-mouthed insect-man known as the Humbug. During a stay in the palace dungeons, Milo learns that the Kingdom of Wisdom is ruled by two brothers: Azaz the Unabridged, who founded Dictionopolis, and the Mathemagician who founded Digitopolis. The brothers keep quarreling about whether words or numbers are more important and little has gone right since they banished their twin sisters, the peacemaking Princesses of Pure Reason and Sweet Rhyme.

Milo volunteers to retrieve the princesses from the Castle in the Air, which hovers over the Mountains of Ignorance. He sets out on his quest with brave Tock and the Humbug, who rarely does or says the right thing. Milo meets some extraordinary people during his journey, including Alec Bings who “sees through things”, the smallest giant in the world, Chroma, the conductor of colour, the Awful Dynne and .58 of a boy. He faces obstacles such as an unexpected detour to the barren Island of Conclusions, the Silent Valley and, worst of all, the terrible demons who haunt the Mountains of Ignorance. Can Milo and his friends defeat the “Unwelcoming Committee” and restore Rhyme and Reason to the Kingdom of Wisdom?

If you’re American, you can skip this recommendation because you probably already love “The Phantom Tollbooth” but it isn’t as well known as it should be in the rest of the world. I was lucky enough to be sent a copy as a child by an American aunt. It made me laugh and think and became one of my favourite books. Now I often give “The Phantom Tollbooth” to parents to read aloud to their children. A chapter per night is just perfect because this deceptively simple story is packed with complex ideas. Architect Norton Juster apparently wrote “The Phantom Tollbooth” when he should have been working on a book about Urban planning and it was illustrated by his flatmate. As a child, I preferred more colourful and detailed types of illustration but now I can appreciate the brilliance of Feiffer’s minimalist style. He could draw even the most grotesque (e.g. a mountain-sized Gelatinous Giant) or extraordinary (e.g. a twelve-faced Dodecahedron) creatures of Juster’s imagination.

I’m sure it’s clear from my synopsis that “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a Fable rather than a realist novel.  I could use the term Allegory but that might imply something archaic and worthy and there is nothing stuffy about this fast-paced and often hilarious story. Milo is accompanied by two archetypal figures: the steadfast companion (Tock), who makes young readers feel safe, and the unreliable adult (the Humbug), who makes young readers feel superior. Milo himself is an every-child figure. A child of any age, gender or race could easily identify with Milo because what Juster is mainly depicting is a state of mind. Milo is someone who isn’t fully engaged with the world he lives in. He doesn’t notice the marvels all around him, he doesn’t give much thought to anything (which is why he ends up in the Doldrums) and he’s reluctant to try anything difficult. Milo is far from alone in these faults. During his journey he passes through a whole city which has become invisible because its inhabitants are too busy to see its “wonders and beauties”.  And this is fifty years before smart-phone addiction… “The Phantom Tollbooth” seems even more relevant today than when it was first written.

At this point I must issue a heath warning – this novel might do you good. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has a lot in common with Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. Both Alice and Milo endure a series of encounters with bizarre beings but only Milo is transformed by his journey. Carroll refused to make Alice’s adventures into the kind of morality tale his Victorian readers expected. “The Phantom Tollbooth” reads like a story written for fun but it does have things to say about the pains and joys of getting an education. Juster never seems preachy, just warm and wise. When Milo complains that everything in Digitopolis is too difficult for him, he’s gently told by the Mathemagician “that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that’s hardly worth the effort.” Colourful characters and startling events provoke Milo into using his brains and senses to their full capacity.

Juster is a wonderful teacher. I learned more about arithmetic from Milo’s problems with Subtraction Stew (the more you eat, the hungrier you get) and Division Dumplings than I ever did at school. The Mathemagician is my husband’s favourite Fantasy character but then he did grow up to be a mathematician.  I always preferred Dictionopolis where you can buy “fancy, best-quality words” such as “quagmire, flabbergast and upholstery” and letters have distinct tastes – Cs are crisp and crunchy but Zs are “very dry and sawdusty”.  Like Milo, I need to be reminded not to leap to Conclusions (it’s a difficult place to get back from) and I’m still sometimes ensnared by Juster’s demons of modern life. If you spend way too much time filling in endless forms or doing pointless repetitive tasks, then you’ve already met the Senses Taker and the Terrible Trivium. Don’t worry. Reading “The Phantom Tollbooth” will help you to escape them and get excited all over again about the possibilities life offers. Until next time….





My last recommendation was a big and colourful novel (“The Rook”) so this time I’m choosing something small and delicate – “The Ghost’s Child” by Australian author Sonya Hartnett. She is best known for her Young Adult fiction but she has also written books for adults and for children. “The Ghost’s Child”, which came out in 2007, has won prizes as a children’s book but I would call it a fable which you need to read at the right point in your life. That point might be when you are ten or ninety; it depends on the individual. “The Ghost’s Child” is available as an ebook but print copies are better for appreciating the exquisite black and white illustrations by Jon McNaught.

The story begins in an Australian seaside town when an elderly lady called Matilda comes home to find a strange boy sitting on her settee. Matilda (Maddy) has lived alone for a long time with only her dog for company. She is pleased but puzzled by her unexpected visitor. “He was like a strong bold bird that had flown into the room and, finding itself cornered, was bored, but unafraid.” Over tea and biscuits, the boy asks some very direct questions, such as, “Isn’t it horrible, being old?” Maddy struggles to explain how she feels about being old and looks back at the history of her life and loves.

Born in the late 19th century, Maddy was the only child of wealthy parents. She was a shy and lonely girl who never seemed able to please her mother. Many children have imaginary friends whom their parents can’t see. Maddy’s friend was the nargun; a cynical monster “old as the hills, larger than a draught horse”. When sixteen year-old Maddy finishes school her father asks her, “What is the world’s most beautiful thing?” Unsatisfied by her answer, he takes Maddy on a grand tour to see the world’s greatest buildings, works of art and natural wonders. They return to Australia when Maddy is eighteen. She is still unable to choose one thing that “is lovelier than anything else combined” until she meets a mysterious young man called Feather.

Feather lives on a beach, talks to birds, and spends most of his time gazing out to sea. Maddy is soon desperately in love and insists that she and Feather belong together. For a while their life in a secluded cottage seems idyllic but a force that Maddy doesn’t understand is driving them apart. Feather warns her that, “There is somewhere else I need to be – someone else I have to be.” Maddy’s search for understanding will take her on a voyage through seas inhabited by lost souls, talkative fish and battling monsters, to the Island of Stillness where a person’s deepest desire is granted. But one person’s paradise may be another person’s nightmare…

“The Ghost’s Child” does have something in common with my previous choice, “The Rook”, in that both books are by Australian authors. There is a great richness and diversity in Australian Fantasy fiction at the moment. Other examples I’ve recommended include “Spindle” by W.R.Gingell (July 2016) and “The Brides of Rollrock Island” by Margo Lanagan (November 2013). If you assume that Australian culture is still a bit rough and ready, please think again. Both Lanagan and Hartnett write particularly elegant prose. “The Ghost’s Child” is a book you may want to read aloud to savour Hartnett’s poetic use of language. There are dazzling descriptions of extraordinary events such as the battle between two sea-monsters  (“Round and around the two legendary creatures careered, the leviathan tangled in tentacles and bellowing, the kraken silent as a tomb, its huge eyes flatly reflecting the clouds and the sea”) but Hartnett also captures the essence of ordinary things in a few simple words. When the boy tells Maddy that old people smell “Like coats in mothy cupboards…Like taps dripping for years and years.” you just know that he is right.

This short novel has some unusual shifts of tone and genre. The opening chapter and most of the scenes involving elderly Maddy and her young visitor seem to belong to a well-observed realistic novel.  The unnamed visitor looks like a normal boy and mainly behaves like one. He’s easily bored, embarassingly direct and squirms when Maddy talks about love. Yet there are chilling hints that his presence is transforming the narrative into some kind of ghost story. Maddy’s account of her childhood and of her successful professional life as a grown woman could come from a historical novel similar to “My Beautiful Career” but her teenage years belong firmly in Fantasy fiction. Maddy and Feather are described as “the lonely fairytale princess and the wondrous being chained to the ground” and Maddy’s second voyage takes her into a dream-like realm where she can converse with whales, the spirits of the drowned and the west wind. Jon McNaught’s drawings, which are more like patterns inspired by the text than conventional illustrations, are particularly magical in this section.

I found the shifts between realism and Fantasy a bit disconcerting at first but then it struck me that for many people the teenage years do stand out from the rest of their life like an era of legend. It is the time for meeting your prince or princess, fighting the dragons of the established order and going on quests for the meaning of life. Fables that try to teach important lessons about how to live your life are fragile things. One false step by the author and belief fails and trust is lost. I found it jarring that the child which Maddy miscarries is always coyly referred to as `the fay’. Apart from that, the story worked for me because it isn’t a rigid allegory with just one set of meanings. The title of the book raises more questions than answers and the character of free-spirit Feather remains open to a variety of interpretations. He seems to be a young girl’s dream boyfriend, desirable because he is unattainable, but is he as imaginary as Maddy’s monster-friend? Even if Feather is real, does he represent the kind of spiritual longings that cannot be satisfied in the material world? Every reader has to come to their own conclusions.

“The Ghost’s Child” is inspiring without being relentlessly upbeat and it doesn’t offer easy solutions to life’s problems. Hartnett believes in being honest with children about the “hard laws and complicated outcomes” of the adult world and she writes unflinchingly about love. Maddy explains to her young visitor that “Love isn’t always a good thing, or even a happy thing. Sometimes it’s the very worst thing that can happen. But love is like moonlight or thunder, or rain on a tin roof in the middle of the night; it is one of the things in life that is truly worth knowing.” This is a story of failed love and incompatible desires but it also shows how Maddy survives rejection and loss by having faith in her own worth and courage. Young Maddy doesn’t always behave wisely or well but I’ve added mature Maddy to my list of favourite older characters in Fantasy fiction. Perhaps you would enjoy meeting her too. Until next time…