The Phantom Tollbooth, Out of Order
“Where’s The Phantom Tollbooth?” It figures the Phantom’s mysteriously disappeared.
Jenny and I have this great idea to make a road trip bingo game for our young Norton Juster fans, and I need the book to ensure ABSOLUTE ACCURACY! We’re all about the details. (What color was Milo’s car? Is Dynne spelled with an “e”? ?).
Can’t find it.
My husband and I and our two girls have recently moved into a big farmhouse, so the books on all the shelves are pretty higgledy-piggledy. But I thought I’d managed to keep all the LitWits titles all together on my study bookcase. I look everywhere, including the shelf above (books like Hans Brinker and Little House in the Big Woods that we’ve workshopped but haven’t turned into kits yet) and below (titles we’re itching to LitWit this year, like The Borrowers and Eight Cousins). No Phantom. I can picture it clearly, that cyan blue cover with Jules Pfeiffer’s definitive illustration in gold. Tock the Watchdog, looking thoughtful.
Could it be behind one of the smaller books, like that pocket edition of Black Beauty? Nope. On the bottom shelf all mixed in with parenting advice and vintage housekeeping almanacs? Nowhere.
What would really be great is if this shelf were alphabetized, I think to myself, and about a dozen other things I should be doing float off into the ether. I enlist a daughter’s help and start handing her books. Pretty soon they’re spilling off my desk, attempts at alphabetical order thwarted by awkward sizes and slippery bindings.
Maybe this project would be easier if I could see all the covers at once?
That’s how they end up on the floor, cheek by jowl, stretching all the way down the hall from the master bedroom to the vacuum cleaner closet. Seeing them like that, I think it’s a little like a wedding receiving line. Friends from all different parts of your life lining up to shake your hand and share some love. Disparate, entirely unrelated, most of them, and yet each one dear in their own way. I so appreciate each one of them coming to the party!
A Little Princess heads the lineup, I notice, true to form (a born leader). Her juxtaposition with A Wrinkle in Time is a little jarring, but right away I’m distracted by thoughts of the molded brain we made out of clear Jello for the workshop, embedded with a battery powered rave ring. It pulsed hypnotically, (just like in the book!), and we had a lot of fun warning the kids “DON’T LOOK AT IT!” which of course was all they wanted to do.
I see I’ve somehow ended up with Jenny’s copy of All-of-A-Kind-Family. Its pages bristle with her brightly colored sticky tabs and I see her notes on narrative arc, characterization and themes poking out from dog-eared pages. I probably grabbed hers by mistake in post-workshop mayhem. I remember we were schlepping a crockpot full of chick-peas, an entire Seder setup, the contents of the LitWitz Candy Shop and sukkah-making supplies for 24 kids at a time up and down two flights of stairs. I wonder if she has mine, and if she’s found my list of music and Yiddish phrases filling the end papers.
The literary spectacle stretches on and I walk over it, straddling the line and taking in each familiar cover. I bend over to admire (again) the detail on my annotated edition of The Hobbit (Smaug in all his glory). Getting toward the end of the queue, I nudge open a space between The House of Sixty Fathers and The Railway Children. That’s where The Phantom Tollbooth belongs.
I ponder the sad empty space. Where could the Phantom be?
And then I remember. For the workshop, we did that three dimensional collage project using Pfeiffer’s illustrations. It’s possible, just possible, I cannibalized my copy for the demonstration. There’s a brief pang of literary guilt, but it’s quickly assuaged by the beauty of alphabetical order and the satisfaction of a solved mystery. Two birds, one stone of happy indulgence.
Now if I can just find my copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz . . .