Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth was a favorite in my childhood, and I’m pleased to say it still holds up. I recently checked out The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, with annotations by Leonard S. Marcus, which was published in 2011. I remember how enthralled I was when my grandmother first showed me The Annotated Alice, and now annotations are everywhere. I mean, that’s basically what DVD commentary tracks are, right? Anyway, Marcus tells more about the lives and partnership of Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer, and explains the sources for some of the expressions that the book takes literally. There are also tantalizing glimpses into characters and ideas from Juster’s notes that didn’t end up in the final book. I found it interesting that Juster had read and loved the Oz books, and I have to wonder if this just meant the original L. Frank Baum ones, or he’d delved into Ruth Plumly Thompson as well. Her Kabumpo in Oz has a mathematically themed town, and the brief episode in Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz with a goody shop that sells anything beginning with “good” is reminiscent of the Dictionopolis marketplace. Also fascinating was the indication that Juster might have had some form of synesthesia, as he was unable to understand math until he came up with a system of color-coding the numbers. This could have been influential on how Tollbooth includes such details as what various sounds look like and how letters taste. One annotation I found odd explains that “turnpike” is “an old-fashioned term,” when I’ve been on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Turnpikes many times in the past few years.
I also checked out Juster’s The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, a picture book that he illustrated himself, although it also includes some stock photographs. The story, likely inspired at least partially by Flatland, concerns a line who’s in love with a dot, but she prefers an uncouth scribble. Eventually, the line wins the dot’s love by learning to form angles, leading up to a punch line presented as a moral. It’s a quite clever work that was made into an animated short directed by Chuck Jones.
Jones also directed the full-length animated version of The Phantom Tollbooth, starring Butch Patrick as Milo, that I watched when I was a kid. It was pretty fun, but as with Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, I feel it sacrificed a lot of the more intellectual humor for sight gags.