"Like most good things that have happened in my life, The Phantom Tollbooth was written when I was trying to avoid doing something else — something I was supposed to do." So says American children's writer Norton Juster in the author's note of the 50th edition of his best-known work. Like Juster's experience, The Phantom Tollbooth is about the many things that can happen at the most unlikely of times. It's about taking risks and adventuring to new worlds and learning new things, but also about humanity in that pure, genuine kind of way that the best of children's authors seem so skilled at accomplishing (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and C.S. Lewis among them).
When you read The Phantom Tollbooth as a kid, the adventure, mysticism, and peculiar characters are what probably captivated you most (the long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, short-armed, bow-legged, big-footed monster, for instance). Revisiting the book as a grown-up, however, you come to realize that the life lessons instilled in the 250 pages of magic are really what's stuck with you all along — they're a solid reminder that despite all the bad things the world has to offer, the good things are never far behind. Here's what it taught us all about being an adult:
It's natural to crave the opposite of what you have.
Our protagonist — a young boy named Milo — never really knows what he wants. "When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out, he longed to be in." Dissatisfaction is an inevitable part of life. It comes from curiosity of the things we don't have, and the places we haven't seen. But appreciating what you have and where you are is the only way to be happy in the now.
Always pay attention.
When Milo enters the Kingdom of Wisdom, he learns that not paying attention — and forgetting to think — will get you stuck in the Doldrums, where everything is gray, lifeless, and the antithesis of exciting.
Be cautious with your time.
As Tock the Watchdog — Milo's sidekick and friendly canine companion — tells him, "[Time] is our most valuable possession, more precious than diamonds. It marches on, it and tide wait for no man." To forget time, to not use it wisely and fill it with the things we want to do rather than feel we have to do, will make it pass right before our eyes.
"Why not?" is a perfectly reasonable reason.
When Milo wants to enter Dictionopolis, the guard tells him he must have a valid reason. The two ultimately realize, though, that "why not?" is "a good reason for almost anything." Sometimes wanting to do something really is all you need to get up and do it.
Always choose your words carefully.
In Dictionopolis — where words really are everything to everyone — Milo learns the importance of being careful with how you use them. Words can hurt; they can be confusing; they can be beautiful and painful in equal measure.
Someone will always want to punish you for something.
The policeman/judge/jailer of the Kingdom of Wisdom is quick to sentence Milo to six million years in prison simply for having a dog with an unauthorized alarm (not realizing that Tock's body is an alarm clock), for creating confusion, wreaking havoc and mincing words. The policeman is power hungry, and serves to show that despite someone always trying to bring you down, there's always a way back up (in Milo's case, a trap door in his prison cell).
Power can and probably will corrupt.
Through the Which (misidentified as the Witch by many of the kingdom's inhabitants), Milo learns that striving for power will often lead to downfall. The Which, in control of all Dictionopolis's words once upon a time, grew greedy and hungry for more — ultimately landing her in isolated confinement, with no friends, no home, and certainly no riches.
Words and numbers are of equal value.
The princesses of Wisdom, Rhyme and Reason, try countless times to teach their brothers (King Azaz of Dictionopolis and The Mathemagician of Digitopolis)occ that their love of words and numbers are of equal value and importance. "It is no more important to count the sands than it is to name the stars." Competing over the value of two beautiful, necessary wonders will only lead to disaster.
You will get sick of half-baked ideas.
Milo learns that half-baked ideas like "the earth is flat" or "night air is bad air" may seem intriguing at the time of their creation, but eventually people will crave truth and grow tired of misinformation. And though it's important to cultivate all ideas, it is more important still to let truth flourish.
There's always a bright side.
The Humbug — the surly, silly but well-meaning bug that travels with Milo and Tock — tells Milo, "Things which are equally bad and also equally good. Try to look at the bright side of things." Though he may not necessarily be factually correct, his message is true. There will always be bad in this world, but that doesn't mean there is no good.
Perspective is everything.
When Milo meets Alec, a boy who grows downwards instead of upwards, he learns that the way we view the world is just a matter of perspective. Alec muses, "If Christmas trees were people and people were Christmas trees, we'd all be chopped down, put up in the living room, and covered with tinsel, while the trees opened our presents." Milo concludes that he'd like to continue seeings things as a child, because it's not so far to fall — a lesson grown-ups (Alec included for he is as tall as a grown-up and thus sees through grown-up perspective) must all learn.
It's okay to get lost.
On several occasions, Milo and friends take detours and strange roads and land in places they never intended to land. But Alec tells them, "Being lost is never a matter of not knowing where you are; it's a matter of knowing where you aren't — and I don't care at all about where I'm not."
Letting the imaginary and real coexist breeds a far kinder existence.
"If something is there, you can only see it with you eyes open, but if it isn't there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed." Holding onto fantasy and imagination amidst reality will always offer a dose of happiness and magic, even in the grimmest of times.
Notice your surroundings.
Alec tells Milo that there was a once a city that grew and grew, and as it expanded, its inhabitants moved faster and faster, always having things to do and people to see. They saw nothing of their wondrous city, and little by little their home faded until it was eventually invisible. There is always something to see; you just have to allow yourself to see it.
Bad sounds are beautiful, too.
From the Doctor of Dissonance, Milo learns that all noises have a beauty to them — be it a rumbling train, a beeping car or a screaming child. They signal life and energy, and though they can be unpleasant, it is important to remember they are there for a reason.
Never be silent when words are needed.
The Soundkeeper tells Milo when he succeeds at restoring sound to the Valley of Silence, "You cannot improve sound by having only silence." Sometimes speaking up, talking to a loved one, finding words after an argument, are essential demonstrations of our humanity. Speaking isn't always easy, but we must try when the situation truly needs it.
Jumping to conclusions will only waste time.
When Milo, Tock and Humbug land themselves on the Island of Conclusion, they learn just how easy it is to fall into the trap of pre-judging. And then they learn that in doing so, they are not only wasting time, but jeopardizing their integrity and the feelings of others.
There can be more than two choices.
"Just because you have a choice, it doesn't mean that any of them has to be right." The Dodecahedron of Digitopolis tells Milo this, when he believes there is only one right and one wrong answer to every problem. But in real life, there exists a grey area, and far more choices than black or white.
Searching for something is never futile.
Milo takes it upon himself to try to find "Infinity" where he will learn what the biggest number in the world truly is. But along the way, he meets a boy (or rather, 58 percent of a boy) who tells him, "Just because you can never reach it doesn't mean that it's not worth looking for." Sometimes it is the inexplainable, undefined, confusing mysteries of the world that are most worth searching for, even if they don't yield the results you were after.
You will always have common ground with strangers.
The Mathemagician tells Milo that no matter where you travel, or what language you speak, numbers will always be universal. They will tie you to people you've never met. They will mean you always have something in common with those of different cultures and backgrounds to your own.
Someone will always try to protect ignorance.
The villains of the Kingdom of Wisdom — the demons — are those that strive to preserve ignorance and keep humanity in the dark. In real life, those people will always exist, but we must try beat them, because it is wisdom and knowledge that breed happiness and truth. Ignorance only leads to pain, either yours or that of others.
You should never feel badly about making mistakes.
Error is a natural part of being human. But Rhyme and Reason teach Milo that it is far nobler to be wrong for the right reasons, than to be right for the wrong reasons.
There is no such thing as impossible.
Perhaps the greatest, most touching lesson and key to preserving happiness as a grown-up is to remember that "many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible." By believing in something, you can always make it happen.