It occurred to me recently that as a YA and MG writer, I need to analyze well-written kidlit the way one might in school: look closely at the structure, the language, the characterization. Think about these books, write about them, learn from them. Which is why I started The Great Children’s Literature Study in which writers examine what we have to learn from classic (and destined to be classic) children’s books. Today’s post from Jacqueline Peveto is about The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
What The Phantom Tollbooth Can Teach Us About Writing Children’s Fiction: A Guest Post by Jacqueline Peveto
If it’s been a while since you’ve visited Mr. Juster’s colorful world, or if you haven’t yet met Milo, Tock the watchdog, and the others, here is a brief run-down. When a mysterious tollbooth appears in his bedroom, young Milo discovers a world of personified puns and cliches, colored by wordplay and the imagination. The realms of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis are both suffering since the banishment of the princesses Rhyme and Reason, so Milo takes it upon himself to rescue the two princesses and restore order to the land.
Let’s take a drive beyond the tollbooth to see what lessons Mr. Juster’s book holds for writers.
#1 – The Hero Has to Leave Home
Many writers are familiar with the concept of the Hero’s Journey and its stages. This archetypal structure is useful for authors, especially when it comes to one of the hardest parts of a story: the beginning.
For a story to begin, your hero must leave home, either literally or figuratively.
In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo is so bored and despondent that the sudden appearance of a tollbooth in his room hardly fazes him. Though he’s convinced “There’s nothing for me to do, nowhere I’d care to go, and hardly anything worth seeing,” he hops into his tiny electric car and starts driving. He’s desperate to escape his boredom, and Milo can only change and grow if he decides to leave his bedroom.
While Milo physically leaves home, this doesn’t mean all heroes need to pack up and go. Leaving home can also be a metaphorical shift for a character. Whether it’s an uncertain transition from elementary school to middle school, a change in a relationship, or making a new friend, as long as your hero is leaving a place of comfort at the beginning of the story and venturing into the unknown, you have a great start on your hands.
#2 – The Hero Must Encounter Obstacles
The unknown is a perfect place to encounter conflict, and conflict is a driving force in fiction. Your hero must encounter difficulties as he or she pushes towards goals, dreams, and desires. More importantly, your hero should be shaped by these obstacles, learn from them, and proactively use the lessons they’ve learned.
Accompanied by his newfound companions, Tock the watchdog and the Humbug, Milo’s adventures challenge his old ways of thinking about words, sounds, math, and other abstract concepts. Most importantly, Milo gains insight to his own habits. These lessons shape him into a wiser traveler and ultimately save him and his friends from a monster called the Terrible Trivium, the demon of “petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.” Milo is able to recognize one of his real-world problems personified in the monster:
“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.
Because he’s been actively learning through each encounter, he’s able to recognize the danger and safely escape the Trivium.
#3 The Hero Must Come Home
After a long, fulfilling journey, the culmination of all that growth and development is found in the return home. This is final stage of the Hero’s Journey, and the return should demonstrate how the hero has changed as a result of her adventure.
In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo rushes home after school the next day to take another drive in the lands beyond, but the tollbooth has vanished, leaving only a note behind that says other boys and girls are waiting to use it. Initially, he’s disappointed, but then he looks around and says, “Well, I would like to make another trip…but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time. There’s just so much to do right here.’” He rediscovers wonder and curiosity as a result of his journey, and he demonstrates his change by recognizing that he doesn’t need the tollbooth any more.
Whether or not your protagonist has actually left home, your hero should return to a place of stability, security, or comfort to demonstrate the change that has occurred as a result of the story. Perhaps after sticking by a friend in a tough situation, your shy protagonist finds the courage to go to basketball tryouts. Perhaps your protagonist comes home to herself, becoming comfortable in her own skin.
A satisfying return home will conclude your story with confidence that the journey your protagonist has been on was worth it, for her and for your readers.
I hope you have enjoyed these lessons from The Phantom Tollbooth! If you haven’t read it before, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Thanks to Eva Langston for giving me the opportunity to talk to you about a book I love very much and encouraging us all to analyze these classics in order to learn as much as we can about crafting masterful fiction for children.
Eva’s Note: For fans of The Phantom Tollbooth, were you aware that there’s an annotated edition? The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth with annotations by Leonard S. Marcus includes “interviews with the author and illustrator, illuminating excerpts from Juster’s notes and drafts, cultural and literary commentary, and Marcus’s own insights on the book.” Check it out!
Jacqueline Peveto is a writer, artist, and enthusiast for anything else involving imagination and paper. She completed a master’s degree in creative writing in addition to a bachelor’s in literature, and during her time as a student, she studied at the University of Oxford and in Japan. Her work has appeared in the Garbanzo Literary Journal, Tales to Go, and Go Overseas. She currently lives in Colorado and is pursuing several writing projects.
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