Title: The Phantom Tollbooth
Author: Norton Juster
Publisher: Random House Bullseye Books
Release Date: 1961
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Children’s, Fantasy
For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams. . .
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I had never read The Phantom Tollbooth as a child, and I had no idea what my students and I were about to embark on this past year while reading.
Milo is not your typical boy. No, he doesn’t find joy or even contentment in anything. Everything is boring and useless. What is this life even for? Until one day he arrives home to find a tollbooth waiting with a manual and coinage, ready to take him to the Kingdom of Wisdom. Through a series of adventures and characters along the way, Milo travels around the kingdom and is soon tasked with rescuing twin princesses Rhyme and Reason. Nothing has been the same in the kingdom since they were banished, and many want them to set things to rights.
Milo – a young boy who is utterly bored with everything in life, nothing satisfies him or even slightly makes him content
Tock – a “watch dog” – a dog with a clock that can fly
The Humbug – a bug who can never make up his mind and is in general disagreeable, sometimes a hindrance
You must never feel badly about making mistakes … as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.
The Highs and Lows
- Milo. He is a young boy, but his character grated on my nerves…at first. Milo doesn’t see the point in anything. He doesn’t see the point in learning at all. Words didn’t matter. Slowly, as Milo traipsed from place to place, he slowly morphed and changed and grew. By the end of the book, he was the exact opposite of the boy he was at the beginning, and I liked that. He learns to talk to people and mean things, too.
- Abstractions. Each of the places Milo visits and all of his tasks are rather abstract, so they aren’t really for younger readers. I’d say 10-12 is the right age to read this for the first time, especially independently. I read this with a group of my sixth-grade students, and I will say they remembered more intricacies and nuances of characters, actions, or words from previous days’ readings than I did. They also understood the jokes, which is 70% or more of the book. The play on words, puns, deeper meanings, and overall abstract language about abstract concepts were cause for pause and thought.
- Adventures. As Milo moves around the Kingdom of Wisdome (see map), he has pitfalls and lessons learned along the way to his ultimate goal: reaching the Castle in the Sky and saving Rhyme and Reason. As Milo and Tock travel, they meet other characters (Whether Man, the Mathemagician, Kakofonous Discord, King Azaz the Unabridged to name a few) who help teach Milo something, and a few characters depart certain magical items to Milo that he will need to accomplish his mission. For example, he learns there is an almost limitless number of words, but choosing the right words for every occasion is important. He ends up in some serious situations and some funny ones, like when everyone else was eating such tasty treats at the King Azaz’s feast.
- Lack of engagement. This is a slow book to wade through. Yes, you have to wade. Slowly. You want to finish the book, but you also want to move on to different, more engaging and fun reads. It takes a while to get through, but I appreciated the growth Milo experienced.
Norton Juster is an architect and planner, professor emeritus of design at Hampshire College, and the author of a number of highly acclaimed children’s books, including The Dot and the Line, which was made into an Academy Award-winning animated film. He has collaborated with Sheldon Harnick on the libretto for an opera based on The Phantom Tollbooth. The musical adaptation, with a score by Arnold Black, premiered in 1995. An amateur cook and professional eater, Mr. Juster lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts.