The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is still among my favorite books for a number of reasons. It is not often you find that a book from your childhood seems to grow in meaning as you age, but this is such a book.
At first glance, this fictional story about an apathetic little boy seems to be another whimsical tale of magical lands, adventure, heroes, and villains. It is all of that, but it is also a charming, well-written lesson on life... the pitfalls of laziness, thoughtlessness, and jumping to conclusions, as well as the virtues of love, laughter, using time and words wisely, and seeing the beauty in nature, as well as the difference between points of view.
Milo, the young eventual hero, is rushing to and fro in life, forever contemplating the uselessness of everything, until a mysterious package appears in his apartment. The package contains a small purple tollbooth, some tokens, and a map of places he's never heard of. With nothing better (in his mind) to do, he climbs into his toy car and deposits a token.
In that moment, he becomes a part of his own personal adventure story.
In this mysterious kingdom, there are two glorious cities, inhabited by a pair of warring brothers. At odds since childhood over whether words or numbers were more important, King Azaz of Dictionopolis and the Mathmagician of Digitopolis, have gone their separate ways and splintered their father's ancient kingdom. It is soon clear that the only way to set things right is for Milo to make the treacherous journey to the far away Castle in the Air. Therein lie the brothers' adopted twin sisters, banished by the brothers because they wouldn't choose sides, but instead argued that words and numbers were of equal importance. Fittingly, the sisters are named Rhyme and Reason. It is only when Rhyme and Reason have returned that peace and unity can be restored to the Kingdom of Wisdom. Accompanied by Tock the watchdog and the Humbug, a character with whom I am sure we can all identify someone, Milo sets out on the journey. The trio have adventures, meet interesting people, and see that both good and evil are not always easily identified.
I won't give away the ending, or all of the lessons that are learned. I will say that this book can be as eye-opening for many adults as it is for children. In many ways, it's a reader's handbook for living a positive life.