When I was very young my paternal grandmother, Grammie Conn, would sit me on the footstool in front of her chair, brush my hair, then for what seemed like hours on end she would recite poems and nursery rhymes to me. A shy child, as I grew I preferred to spend my free time with my nose buried in a book. I loved the way I could get lost in another world when reading, literally transported; books became my own little time machine through which I explored a world much larger and – I believed - more interesting than my own.
My mother was an avid reader herself and did not discourage me from reading, but sometimes I had to bend her rules a little - like hiding under the bedcovers after lights out with a flashlight reading until I fell asleep, when I woke I would continue on and be late getting ready for the school. I would try to read at the dinner table, I read when I was suppose to be doing chores, I would even hide books within my text books at school, pretending I was studying while really I walking through the Amazon, slaying dragons, or falling through a rabbit hole to another world . As my family life became more chaotic and unstable books became my anchor and my escape.
Phantom Tollbooth was published in 1961, the year I was born. I discovered Norton Juster’s novel through the school’s library sale when I was in Fourth or Fifth grade. It was not the first book I had ever read, but it was so different that I remember it to this day. The tale begins with the protagonist, Milo, returning home from school to find an anonymous package containing a miniature tollbooth and a map of Lands Beyond. He puts the tollbooth together, gets the map, drives through the tollbooth in his toy car and finds himself driving on a road in a place called Expectations. Thoroughly enjoying the ride, he pays no attention to the map and gets lost in the Doldrums, a grey place where thinking and laughing are not allowed. However, he is found there and rescued by Tock, a watchdog with the body of an alarm clock, and together they continue their travels.
While Phantom Tollbooth is far from being in the literary fiction category, the writing inspired me. Many literary novels were once simply popular writings that collected admirers and stood the test of time. Writings that begin as popular with the masses are often skewered by critics. Conversely authors declared literary geniuses by modern critics may really prove to be no better than a middle-brow wordsmith.
I read somewhere that literary fiction can be described as well-written with distinctive characters that grow and change, rich dialogue, and interesting story lines, but doesn’t that describe every good tale? Is it not possible that a story categorized as “popular fiction” eventually become recognized as literary fiction if it stands the test of time by exhibiting a well crafted phrasing in a style that is vivid, original, and paints a lasting picture in the reader’s mind?