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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I did not read The Phantom Tollbooth  as a child for the simple reasons that I missed its publication and was soon too old. So when I read Lucy Mangan’s enthusiastic comments in Bookworm I decided to see what I had missed. She described her delight when it was read to the class by her primary teacher and how she longed for the daily readings. From this experience she found that …

… words weren’t just markings on a page to be passively absorbed and enjoyed but could be tools, treasures and toys all in one. (219 in Bookworm by Lucy Mangan)

What a gift from Norton Juster! She recalled Milo ‘the first unlikeable central character’ she had ever come across. But recalled also the pace, wit, invention, action and wordplay which fell from the pages ‘like sweets tumbling from a bag.’ This, I thought, I should read.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Milo is introduced as follows.

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always. (13)

Milo is clever and has lots of books and toys but he has no friends and does not settle to anything, is not interested in what he learns at school and sees ‘the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time at all’. Until one day he finds a package containing a tollbooth in his room and in his toy car he pays his toll and sets out on a journey to Dictionopolis, which is marked on the map that was supplied with the booth.

He arrives in Expectations where he meets the Whether Man and soon finds himself in the Doldrums. He is rescued by the Watchdog called Tock, who will not let him kill or waste time and joins him on his adventures. Later they meet Humbug. They find problems in the land that arise from the banishment of the princesses Rhyme and Reason by two warring brothers. The princesses were banished for refusing to adjudicate between the relative importance of numbers and words.

Our three heroes set off to rescue the princesses, [it is the early ‘60s and the second wave of feminism had not yet broken] meeting on the way such characters as the Spelling Bee, Officer (Short) Shrift, Faintly Macabre the Official Which, Dischord and Dynne and musicians who play colours, the .58 of a child from the average family which had 2.58 children, the Senses Taker and so on. They visited both Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, and when they return with the princesses harmony is restored, although squabbling breaks out as soon as Milo makes his farewells.

When the three friends meet the princesses Reason explains the importance of learning, from experience, from mistakes, and for its own sake. When Milo complains about what he has to learn in school having so little significance now she explains,

‘…for whatever you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.’ (234)

And when he returns home and finds that the tollbooth has disappeared, he realises that his books will open doors to other worlds, and there is so much to do.

Here’s Lucy Mangan’s assessment:

It remains a masterfully wrought, glorious, hilarious, life affirming read – a celebration of words, ideas, sense, nonsense, cleverness and silliness but also a love of learning for its own sake. I suspect, in a world in which education is increasingly being reduced to futile box-ticking and forcible rendering into measurable quantities that which can never be made tangible, this is a message that will only become more revelatory and valuable to those lucky enough to hear it. (221 in Bookworm by Lucy Mangan)

Norton Juster

Norton Juster was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1929. When he wrote this book he was trying to write one for children about cities, having trained as an architect. Apparently he had not, at that point, read Lewis Carroll, which is surprising because Alice in Wonderland is precisely what came to mind when I read it.

Famously he also shared an apartment building with Jules Feiffer, who was just making his name as a draughtsman. Jules Feiffer’s illustrations are an integral part of The Phantom Tollbooth.He captures Milo’s innocence and pre-adolescent energy perfectly.

Norton Juster went on to make a career as an architect and an academic, and he also published more books, some of them for children. None seem to have met with the acclaim of this one. It is, with justification, known as a classic. It is also great fun.

Bookwormby Lucy Mangan reviewed on Bookword in July 2018.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton JusterFirst published in the US in 1961. I used the Harper Collins 50thAnniversary Edition (Essential Modern Classics). 256pp. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer.

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A Birthday for Our Writing Group

There’s nothing like a good celebration for reminding us how much we have achieved. Our writing group decided to turn our performance project into a celebration for our fourth birthday. It is always good for a group to celebrate. And for a birthday party we needed cake.

Celebration

Founded four years ago in September 2013 by the librarian, a group of writers have met every fortnight, on a Saturday morning, to read our work to each other, receive critical comments and discuss issues and challenges we face. The writers are a diverse lot. They include a gardener, care worker, home tutor, counsellor, IT expert, bowls player, theatre producer, artists, teachers, psychologist, editor, journalists, filmmaker. Some are established writers, others are beginners.

Two years ago we published a collection of our writing, Gallimaufry, covering our costs by selling copies, suggesting they made good seasonal presents. We could have repeated the success and produced Gallimaufry2, but we wanted to get our work heard in a different way. We like to stretch ourselves to see what we can learn from different experiences.

We chose a live performance, but many in the group did not have confidence to read to the public, so we limited our audience by invitation. And then we set about arranging the event.

Organisation

Our group prides itself on its loose organisation. We have no leader, no secretary, and any decisions are made by whoever is present at a meeting. Action is taken by volunteers, who scope out venues, bring equipment, agree to take on roles, and to undertake tasks.

When we reviewed the event, one of our writers reflected that we organised the Birthday Celebration much as we write. There is an initial idea, we explore it further, perhaps taking a turn around a short deviation, revisiting the ideas, and then moving forward tweaking and polishing as we go.

And so it was. Someone found the function room above the local pub, we all brought something to read up to a limit of 10 minutes, we drew up the programme together. By email we ensured that it said what people wanted it to say. We worked out that we needed to pay £3 each to cover the cost of the venue, but we didn’t want to make a profit. What would we do with it?

One of our technical experts provided a sound system, I brought a music stand, someone else provided a light to clip to the stand. Our radio experts have recorded the event to draw on for their local radio programme. And Thelma provided the cake. We set about inviting our audience.

Celebrate!

And on the night it was all a great success. We had loaded for success, by asking Thelma to launch us with one of her Tasteless Verses.

And we were off! Poems, short stories, memoirs, all steered by our two MCs. My own contribution was a section of a long short story. We pride ourselves on the variety of our writing. Thelma was also our closing star reading more verse before we did a round of story tag involving willing audience members (aged 9 – 93). There was plenty of laughter, intense listening, nervousness and sense of achievement. The evening had a delightful air of playfulness and lightness. We did it! We entertained about 40 people for an evening.

And what did we learn?

Performance is different from reading within the group. It needs more polish and practice.

We realised that the attentiveness of the audience was partly due to the close listening we practise in our normal sessions.

And we thought perhaps we might go on tour next: to village WIs, church tea or coffee concerts, libraries, schools, any one who will have us really. Or do something else new to us. Or both.

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A rant about … a bad beginning

I wanted to chew my fingers in frustration, to gather up my notebook and pens and leave; or cry out, ‘can we please get on?’ But on it went despite this being the worst beginning ever. Has this happened to you?

Writing Workshop

Classroom photo via Visual Hunt

I’d been invited to attend a free writing workshop. I live in the kind of place where the local education authority offers six-week writing courses at times that suit me. But they are frequently cancelled for lack of participants. The offer of a place on a free workshop was an inducement to sign up for a course in September.

So I took my seat at 10.26 am, eager as mustard, keen as a beaver, with my note pad, a supply of pens, and a readiness to enjoy meeting fellow writers and work at our topic – the structure of novels. Six of us assembled in the classroom. It’s actually the room where we hold our writing group meetings so it has a familiar writerly feel to it. I was in the perfect zone to begin learning.

Forms

10.30 am. Our first task was to fill in the forms for the local authority. We had to check the course code, our name, address, date of birth, email, telephone number, level of formal education achieved and benefit status. If you claimed benefits the form required your NI number. You were also required to tick a box about your housing situation: living with another but main earner, living with dependent children, living with partner, none of the above.

And we were all required to produce some form of ID. People offered library cards, bankcards, a promise to bring something to the office later, a passport. Who carries the course code, their NI number and ID with them to a writing workshop?

That was page 1. It was now 10.40 am. Turn over to page 2. Now we move on to targets: targets for the course, your targets and other targets. The tutor said we should write the course target and then score our current level of proficiency on the scale 1 – 5. She had helpfully written them on the white board.

Your own target? She suggested a few, such as ‘learn terminology of novel structure’, or ‘develop a plan for my own novel’. I write ‘gain confidence’ and leave it at that. You must write something, we are told, or the form will reappear for corrections. Martin will be up in a minute to collect the forms and check them.

It is 10.50 am. One of the participants suggested there will be detention for people who don’t do their forms correctly. Someone else suggested the cupboard is full of previous course participants locked in with their incomplete or inaccurate forms. Open the cupboard door and they’ll all fall out. At this moment Martin appeared and collects our forms. We sobered up immediately.

Admin Burden by Pizarros via Wiki Commons

A round of introductions

Now, said the tutor, (it’s more or less 11.00 am) Martin will check the forms and return them at the coffee break. I’d like you all to introduce yourselves and say why you have come to the workshop today. My enthusiasm had drained away. I didn’t want to be there any more. And it wasn’t over yet.

The end

Martin duly reappeared and a few people had to correct their forms. At the end we all had to go back to our targets, and score them again from 1-5. Finally we were given cards for our anonymous learner evaluations.

Two questions leave me speechless with frustration:

Has this course helped you to feel happier or healthier? Yes No

Inner voice says: see above about happiness and frustration.

If you were unemployed when you started your course, has this helped you get a job, start volunteering or go on another course? Yes No Not applicable.

Inner voice says: in 2 hours? I was sat here for 2 and a half hours so of course I didn’t get a job. More silly forms.

What are they used for anyway?

Photo credit: manoftaste.de via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Steam and my ears

It’s not the tutor’s fault. Funding for adult education requires us to complete these ridiculous forms. My learning requires them to stop doing it. One fifth of the designated time was taken up with the wretched things. By the time the tutor was able to engage us with the material we had come to explore I had lost my enthusiasm and gained much resentment and hostility.

And I gained another number: a learner identity number to go with my NI number, my library card number, my passport number and my level of education code. And there I was thinking I had a name.

I detect a conspiracy to create the most enormous barriers to learning and put adults off formal learning as a contribution to austerity.

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