Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Terrible Trivium

Every month I get sent five books to review for the online review site Children's Literature. The box arrives, I open it, I read whatever is in it, and then I write 150-250 words about each title. The most fun, of course, is opening the box. I hope it won't contain the second very long volume of some young adult fantasy trilogy; I hope it will contain fresh, funny chapter books. But I don't like to make too many specific requests of the team who send the books out to the reviewers. For one, it would make a difficult job even more difficult for them. But mainly it just seems unsporting.

This month the box had in it four picture books as well as the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I haven't read The Phantom Tollbooth since Mrs. Orenstein read it aloud to us in fifth grade. Back then I hadn't liked it all that much. Certainly not as much I had loved Johnny Tremain, which Mrs. Robertson read aloud to us in fourth grade, and which remains one of my all-time favorite books. Norton Juster's humor was so self-conscious; you could tell how funny he thought he was being. All right, it WAS sort of like Louis Carroll's humor, but I had never been a huge Alice fan, either, not the way I was a fan of Anne of Green Gables and A Little Princess.

But reading it this past week to submit my review, I found that the book started to grow on me. As I read the wonderful tributes to it included in this anniversary edition - by luminaries such as Maurice Sendak, Jeanne Birdsall, and Maria Nikolajeva - I began to feel ashamed that I hadn't loved it the first time around. The story of a world in which rhyme and reason have been banished does feel awfully timely, I must say.

My favorite bit on this reading, the one that most spoke to me, is Milo's encounter with "the Terrible Trivium," who occupies all his own time - and everybody else's as well - with endless pointless tasks. "What could be more important than doing unimportant things?" he asks. "If you stop to do enough of them, you'll never get to where you're going."

He continues, "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the time. For there's always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing."


I confess that my life lately has been ruled by the Terrible Trivium. When I try to think of what I've been doing for the last few months instead of writing, it's hard for me to come up with an answer. I do know that every single day has been very very busy, filled to bursting with - well, with whatever it is I've been doing instead of what I really should be doing.

Thank you, Norton Juster, for pointing this out! And congratulations on the fiftieth anniversary of this now-classic book.


  1. You review *five* books every month?! On top of everything else you do? I don't think your life is ruled by Terrible Trivium -- I think you do a heroic amount!
    One of the great delights of having kids for me has been coming back to old books and rereading them with new (old) eyes. It's so strange to revisit them, and realize how much one has changed, and how much one missed!
    For me though The Phantom Tolllbooth would have to be in the column of "best ever". But it looks like I missed a gem in Johnny Tremain…

  2. Yes, that is one of the best things about having kids - and you get to have DAUGHTERS. My boys were both raised by listening to me read aloud every girl book every written - though I must say turned out none the worst for it. Johnny Tremain is a long novel of the American Revolution - it was spellbinding to me as a classroom read-aloud.