A Post In Which I Admit a Crushing Failure Regarding The Phantom Tollbooth

by Tom B.

Hey Readers – Remember all those posts back in September where I was so excited about finally reading The Phantom Tollbooth with my daughter? You know, the book that single-handedly inspired this blog and that I’ve been DYING to read to her for almost six years now? I even posted my initial “Phantom Tollbooth First Read” article where I recounted my experience reading the first two chapters with my kid at bedtime. Wasn’t that a fun article – an article that promised to give you a day-by-day breakdown of our joyous experiences reading The Phantom Tollbooth together for weeks to come?

I should’ve smelled the jinx coming a mile away.

Quick aside – Our family does a lot of road-trips together and, almost every time we’re on the last leg of our drive home, if we’ve had an easy day of driving so far, I inevitably say something like, “Boy, we’ve hit no traffic today, have we?” and you know what happens? Five minutes later, we hit construction or an overturned car and BAM – four extra hours are added to our trip. And, like an idiot, I do that almost EVERY single time. I jinx the end of the trip.

This is all a very long-winded way for me to tell you… sigh… we have officially stopped reading The Phantom Tollbooth for the moment.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Yeah, we know, Milo. We’re disappointed too…

And, yes, I am a little bit heartbroken. And, yes, I think I jinxed it.
Let me explain – After my first installment of “Phantom Tollbooth First Read“, my daughter and I made it through a few more chapters. We got to Chapter Five and I thought we were humming along. She really liked Milo and Tock’s arrival to Dictionopolis. (When it was revealed that Dictionopolis was the kingdom where words came from, she declared out loud, “So, THAT’s what this book is about!”)  But, in Chapter Five, when Milo was taken to the Dictionopolis dungeons and met “the Which” – the inspiration for a lot of homonym fun – my daughter seemingly hit a wall with the book.

“Why do they keep using the wrong words?” she complained. “This book is making me feel dumb.”

The Phantom Tollbooth

She wants to read “Harry Potter” and not our book? That makes no sense…

That statement was a fairly seismic event. The LAST thing I ever want to do is make my daughter feel “less than” or not up to a challenge. I knew reading The Phantom Tollbooth with her was going to be a challenge – she’s only five years old – but I wasn’t really prepared for a negative emotional impact like that.

My other problem is that my daughter can CLEARLY tell that I have a vested emotional stake in The Phantom Tollbooth. After our experience reading Chapter Five, I asked her, “Do you want to stop reading Phantom Tollbooth for a while?” The first thing she did was look hard into my eyes. She then replied, “No, I like it,” in a not-very-convincing voice.  I smiled and said, “Hey, it’s no big deal. We can just push pause on this one for a while.” Again, she scrutinized my expression and then a palpable sense of relief came over her own face. “Yeah, pause. Let’s pause for a while. I think that’s a good idea.”

So… once again, sigh.

However, there’s a part of me that’s glad this happened. First of all, because I don’t want reading The Phantom Tollbooth to be a miserable chore for my daughter. I would like it to mean something or, at the very least, be a pleasurable experience, so, I’m happy that my kid was honest enough with me to prevent her first full reading of The Phantom Tollbooth from becoming a miserable experience.

Next, I’m happy that my readers get a chance to see me very clearly fall on my ass. A good friend of mine who reads this blog occasionally asks me, “So, are you ever going to write ANYTHING negative?”  And she’s got a point. This blog is largely filled with me raving about specific books. Going on and on about books you just HAVE to buy for your kid no matter what and recounting how absolutely wonderful it is to read with my kid. If someone wanted to call me a “kid lit Pollyanna” (which is itself a kid lit reference), I would have a hard time arguing that point.

Trying to get your kids to read your favorite books – or even just the books that you deem to be good reads – is a tricky proposition. Because quality is subjective. And, while I think I’ve done an OK job of placing (what I feel are) quality children’s titles in front of my daughter and letting her choose to read them, I may have been a little too pushy or too needy when it came to The Phantom Tollbooth.

So, for the third time… sigh… we are officially “paused” on The Phantom Tollbooth.

In the meantime, my wife has just started reading our daughter Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and I may read her Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief next. I’m not a rapturous fan of the Percy Jackson series (I like them well enough), but The Lightning Thief is the professed “favorite book” of my daughter’s first-grade teacher, so my daughter really wants to read it now and discuss it with her teacher, which… c’mon, is cute as hell. How can I say no to that?

In summation, I tried to read The Phantom Tollbooth to my daughter and failed MISERABLY. But all is not lost, failure is a part of life, and Dictionopolis will rise again… if I have anything to say about it.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer December 3, 2012 at 1:34 pm

My son, sigh, has no interest in “Phantom” (age 9) or “Charlotte’s” either. So, while those books have not captured his fancy, I have found a trick to capturing his attention with books that he would reject. We listen to them (together) in the car. He, my daughter (5) and I each get a turn to choose a book. The “Little House” books have become a favorite. Oz books have become a good choice. And any number of others–Sherlock Files, Chasing Vermeer, have all become engaging.

We do “quit” books from time to time–(sigh, Phantom, sigh), but for the most part, the 15 minute drive to and from school, and that everyone gets a turn to choose (and mom doesn’t have a veto), is enough to get everyone to give a new book a try.


Tom B. December 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I am so jealous. I am an audiobook fiend, but so far, I haven’t been able to get my daughter particularly interested in audiobooks. This is especially annoying because we do car trips a lot – we’re driving to Florida in a few weeks – so audiobooks would be an amazing way to pass the time. So far, we’ve listed to various parts of How to Train Your Dragon, Coraline, and some Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, but we’ve never made it all the way through a book yet. So thanks a ton for the suggestions – I’m definitely going to try a few on our upcoming road trip.


Mary R. November 17, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Positive Spin: Your daughter just learned that sometimes readers abandon a book! Sometimes they come back to the book at a later time and sometimes they don’t.
I hope she loves HP; my son loved that as a home read-aloud in first grade (but the end of the movie was a but scary for him).
One thing I’ve learned about reading chapter books with kids over years of teaching reading and parenting is “what’s the rush”? (I think this would be an interesting dissertation for someone!) There are so many right-now chapter books for her.
A quick gauge that has helped me as a a teacher and a parent is to look for characters closer in age to my kids/ students. (“The Lightening Thief” may be a stretch for a newly-turned-six. Percy Jackson is 12- and if she’s not into mythology, it can be a lot…)
I can empathize with you- my son was not into Charlottes’ Web- and it made me sad. Maybe we’ll try again. Readers themselves do get to pick what their own good reads are.
And again- love your blog!


Tom B. November 17, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Heh. Our daughter revolted against Charlotte’s Web too. A few chapters in, she got really mad at us and screamed, “THIS IS A DEATH BOOK!” What can you say to that? We just put it back up on the shelf and had to recognize that it just wasn’t time for that book yet.

And, yeah, I’m 90% sure we’re not reading Lightning Thief next now. I think the main attraction for her was that she knew her teacher liked the book, but, after I ran down the story for her, she got a little hesitant. We may move back to the How to Train Your Dragon books or find something completely different.

And thanks for all your kind words! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog!


Janna November 15, 2012 at 4:51 pm

My mom tried to get me to read it when I was probably about 8 or 9.. I didn’t like it either.


Kate November 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Aww, that’s too bad. It’s likely an age matter though. I think my teachers first read the book to us in second or third grade when we had already been introduced to the grammatical and mathematical concepts so the jokes made sense. Give it another go in a couple years.


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