While I was reading The Phantom Tollbooth, one of the things that struck me the most was how didactic it is. We’ve talked in class about how children’s literature has often been used to teach, and in fact, that seems to be one of its main uses. Stories are a great way to hold a child’s attention and slip a lesson in, without sitting them down and lecturing them.
It makes sense to teach with a story. However, the stories that we’ve read so far seem to do this more subtly than The Phantom Tollbooth does. While in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice was often the one to impart wisdom (such as the fact that she gives herself very good advice, but very seldom follows it; or that one shouldn’t drink much from a bottle marked “poison”) to the reader, it seems to be other characters who give direct lessons in The Phantom Tollbooth.
For example, in chapter 2 (my electronic version of the book doesn’t have page numbers), the Lethargarians tell Milo that “people who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums”. Also, the Spelling Bee in chapter 4 tells Milo that he knew he’d “never amount to anything without an education”, which actually links back to the beginning of the book, when the narrator spoke of Milo not seeing a point in education and hating to learn.
Alongside the very obvious, succinctly stated lessons there are slightly more subtle ones, like the importance of learning words and keeping them straight as shown in the Word Market section, and the importance of rhyme and reason in the story the Which tells to Milo and Tock.
I think it’s interesting to consider the possible reasons behind stating these lessons so clearly and cleverly, instead of hiding them more fully behind stories, and to talk about what effect reading them has on a child reader.