Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth
Title:  The Phantom Tollbooth

Author:  Norton Juster

Illustrator:  Jules Feiffer

First published in 1961 by Random House.

Favorite Line:  So many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible.

Plot Summary:
Milo is a very bored young boy who goes home from school one day to find a box in his bedroom.  He follows the instructions and finds that he has created a tollbooth.  Using his electric car, he pays the toll, goes through the tollbooth and emerges in a different land.  There he meets Tock, a watchdog (literally, a dog with a watch) and they travel together to the kingdom of Dictionopolis.  There, they are sent on a mission to save the princesses Rhyme & Reason who are locked up in the Castle in the Air.  Accompanying them is the Humbug.
Milo, Tock and the Humbug set off on the adventure, jumping to Conclusions, doing Unimportant Tasks, visiting Digitopolis, seeing Illusions and  Reality, traveling through the Valley of Sound and confronting Ignorance in their quest to save the princesses.

This is the first book I remember reading on my own.  I remember picking it out at the bookstore and then being captivated by the story.  I must have been in second or third grade, and this book, maybe along with The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, really cemented in me a love of reading.  So when I was picking out books for the Flashback Challenge, this was the first one on my list.

Flashback Reading ChallengeI read it in one afternoon, and I am still in love with it.  In fact, I am possibly even more in love with it than I was in third grade as much more makes sense to me now than it probably did then.  Now I really understand the danger of Jumping to Conclusions.  I know how frightening the demon of the Overbearing Know-it-All is, or Threadbare Excuses and, of course, the Triple Demons of Compromise.  I probably didn't understand all those allegorical things then, but I did understand the wordplay.  The difference between witch and which.  The word play of eating your words, and the math involved in subtraction soup.  I ate that up, and I still do.  For example, here's an excerpt that really just shows how witty this book is:

"I didn't know I was going to have to eat my words," objected Milo.
"Of course, of course, everyone here does," the king grunted...
"Here, try some somersault," suggested the duke.  "It improves the flavor."
"Have a rigmarole," offered the count, passing the breadbasket.
"Or a ragamuffin," seconded the minister.
"Perhaps you'd care for a synonym bun," suggested the duke.
"Why not wait for your just desserts?" mumbled the earl indistinctly, his mouth full of food.
"How many times have I told you not to bite off more than you can chew?" snapped the undersecretary, patting the distressed earl on the back.
"In one ear and out the other," scolded the duke...

Absolutely wonderful.  The whole book is full of wordplay like that, making use of puns and double meanings, miscommunication and fabulous inferences.  And while it's written for children and I think children can understand the wordplay, the underlying story is more appreciated by adults.  It is all about the quest for knowledge and wisdom.  The book mentions how people ignore things of beauty and then beauty disappears.  It talks about important sounds like laughter and crying and chatter and clapping.  It discusses the importance of seeing reality and not being set off course by illusions.  "..if something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open, but if it isn't there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed.  That's why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones."  It hits on the ever-important quest for a place you might never reach.  " of the nicest things about mathematics, or anything else you might care to learn, is that many of the things which can never be, often are."  It has really simple pen ink illustrations that show exactly what you imagine in your head.

Illustration from The Phantom Tollbooth
I don't want to say any more because if you are one of those few people who have not yet read this book (Amanda, I am looking at you), then I don't want to ruin the first experience of it for you.  It's delightful.  It's witty and fun and so full of meaning.  I was worried I wouldn't enjoy it as much this time around as I did the first time around, but I still do.  I feel this is the sort of book you appreciate more as you age.  It's brilliant in its depiction of life and the important things in life, and I know that it's one that will always stay with me.  It is littered with so many memorable quotes and so many perfect scenes.  And more than anything, it exemplifies how much you can do with an imagination, and how important one is for a child.  I know the book had me in awe when I was younger, and I'm still in awe now.  Juster does so much with language- playing with it, teasing it and using it to hone his point.  I hope if you haven't read The Phantom Tollbooth, that you do.  And I hope that if you have read it already, that you pick it up again.  It's well worth the read!


  1. I am wondering now if I ever read all of it as a child. I remember getting it from the library and reading the first couple of chapters, but I don't recall all the story. I definitely want to get it out again, especially as it appeals to both the adult and the child. Lovely review.

  2. I worry that since I didn't read this as a kid, I wouldn't like it now... :/

    But you say you enjoyed it in 3rd grade? I don't think my boys have read it. They're all at that level of reading or above, though the oldest is only in 3rd grade. I might see if they want to read it.

  3. I remember so vividly when I got this book - I was probably seven or so, and my mother had said "Oh, this one's amazing," and I bought it with my OWN MONEY. Such a great book. Have you ever read anything else by him?

  4. This sounds absolutely enchanting. I am so sad I missed it as a child but that won't stop me from getting it now! Thanks for the heads up!

  5. First of all, loved the book. Remember reading it when I was young and you brought back good memories.

    Second, I just noticed the picture in your headers. It's really beautiful.


  6. Yay! The Phantom Tollbooth - an oldie but a goodie!!

  7. One of my allllll time favorite books. it was a favorite when I was young, and I recently gave it a reread only to have a completely new appreciation for all of the humor and wit that I couldn't understand in my childhood. Great post!

  8. Vivienne- I would highly recommend checking it out again, especially if you don't quite remember reading it.

    Amanda- Aww, I hope your son would read and enjoy it. I really loved it at that exact age, and I think that's a good age for it, when you start to understand multiple meanings of words and how to play with them.

    Jenny- I have not read anything else by him. I remember wanting to read the one about the line. Have you any recommendations?

    Rhapsody- Yay! I hope you share your thoughts.

    Anne- It brought back so many memories for me, too. And that you for the compliments on the header. It's by a Canadian artist named Oliver Ray.

    Brizmus- Agreed!

    Padfoot & Prongs- That's exactly what happened for me, too! So many new levels to the story on a reread.

  9. I read The Phantom Tollbooth in the fifth grade, and it is still one of my favorite books.

  10. You know, I have actually never read this book, sad to say. But I do OWN a copy, so perhaps I should add it to the TBR pile, especially since it's such a quick yet wonderful read. Thanks for the reminder!

  11. Anonymous1/13/2010

    I love, love, love this book. Time to dig up my copy and share with Little Geek

    twitter: @history_geek

  12. I had such a crush on Rhyme and Reason.

  13. Christina- I think that's how a lot of people have reacted to it :-)

    Lesley- Ohmigosh, PLEASE read it! So quick and fantastic.

    Wonders and Marvels- I love your blog! I go to it all the time. And I think it would be GREAT to read with a child after reading it yourself as a child.

    Miconian- They were very svelte. I could see that.

  14. Anonymous1/13/2010

    My daughter (10) and I read this together last year. She loved it, but I got a little tired of it partway through.

  15. Is it awful to admit that I've *never* read this? Somehow, I never came across it when I was younger, and I worry that if I read it now it won't be magical.

  16. This post made me happy :D Is there anything more wonderful than revisiting an old favourite and finding out you still love it as much as ever, or even more? Also, I love your favourite line *adds book to list*

  17. I adored this book when I read it to my son (who was perhaps a bit young for it and enjoyed it less than I did!). I really like the thought of rereading it again, just for me. Lovely review!

  18. Have you read The Dot and the Line? That's another Juster favorite of mine.

  19. Carol- Oh, that's sad! I have heard people say they don't think it's a very interesting story, as it's quite linear and the characters don't grow. I guess I could see that, but I love it, anyway. Glad at least your daughter liked it!

    Eva- Amanda has the same fear. And based on Carol above, it seems quite valid! But sad :-( It is one I just adore, so I like to think everyone else would, too!

    Nymeth- Yes, so true! I love when books pass the test of time :-)

    litlove- Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I hope your son grows into it.

  20. Anonymous1/13/2010

    This sounds absolutely adorable. I've never seen/read/heard of it!

  21. This is a book that my whole family loves and now that you mention it, I do think that it's time for a reread. Like you, I loved the wordplay in this book. I had never read it as a child, but made sure that when I discovered it, my kids got the chance to read it. Now that I think of it, I am pretty sure that this is one of my husband's all time favorite books!

  22. I'd never heard of this book when I was a kid; I discovered it in my late 30's on a list of recommended books for homeschoolers. I read it to my older daughter. I loved it! I used to have a quote from this book on my blog. Unfortunately I can't find it now. It might be time to re-read it soon.

  23. I remember enjoying this as a child too--I should pick up a copy for a re-read. :)

  24. I've never read this but my friend says it's her favorite book from childhood. Gotta check it out! :-)

  25. Anonymous1/13/2010

    I have never read this as a child, I don't think I can read it now for myself, but the story seems so enchanting maybe for my 7yr old.

  26. This is one of my best friend's all time favorite books. I've yet to read it, but it does seem like a fabulous story.

  27. Seems like a bunch of us adults will be revisiting our childhood soon. I don't think I ever read the whole thing. For one thing, my kids always had it on their shelves (and parents were not allowed to touch), and now it's in the grandchild collection up in the attic. I think I'm heading up there to bring it down to the adult TBR shelf. Thanks for a joyous selection.

  28. I read this in sixth grade so I got most of the word play but I definitely want to re-read it this year. It was one of the books that I bought for Z's shelves even before he could focus his eyes. I can't wait until he picks it up one day!

  29. This was probably one of my son's favorite books when he was younger. Nice review!

  30. I remember loving the movie and I'm pretty sure I read the book but don't remember it! Sounds like this is one I need to read. Thanks for the glowing review, I'm adding it to my "finds" list so I can remember to read this book!

  31. Anonymous1/17/2010

    Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite children's books of all time. Like you, I think I got even more out of it as an adult than I did as a child, although I do remember really enjoying it as a middle school student. Your review made me nostalgic and I look forward to stopping by your blog again! :)

  32. Wonderful bought lots of memories rushing back with this one...I wonder what happened to our families copy of this? will have to hunt another down..for me and my three young boys.

  33. You know I love when I see book reviews of titles other than the newest and shiniest additions to any genre....there are so many books that get overlooked! I've seen this title in our local store and know that it has been in rotation on the school reading lists, but alas...I have never read it. Until your review, I really didn't know what it was about. I just knew it was the book parents were looking for when they said, "I need a book for my child. It's got a blue cover and a dog with a clock or something on the front."
    I can definitely see where with the wordplay and unlying message, the audience age could range greatly. Will definitely be sure to check this out at some point in the near future....thanks for sharing! Happy reading!

  34. Anonymous4/13/2010

    This is one of the books that I reread cyclically (like certain Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Louisa May Alcott...) I come from a big rereading family. Seeing it on the list compels me to add it to mine but I will have to use it as a bonus book because I've read it so many times I don't think it qualifies anymore. I was always crazy about the .3 child. By the way -- I echo the person who mentioned The Dot and the Line -- definitely one to read if you haven't. It also makes a great wedding card...

    Definitely signing up for the challenge, btw.


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