“The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth
Some people liked the illustrations but I didn’t. 😦

Totally wacky but adorable read. The Phantom Tollbooth took me on a wild ride that I, unfortunately, could not appreciate at the time I read it.

A quick summary:

The Phantom Tollbooth is a middle-grade novel about a boy named Milo who is bored by his everyday life. Nothing appeals to him or surprises him. One day he comes home to find a phantom tollbooth in his room with instructions for getting to the Lands Beyond, a perfect place for Milo to pass the time. He sets off and meets strange people and creatures — a dog with a clock for a body, a boy who grows down instead of up and whose feet doesn’t touch the ground until he’s an adult — and visits even stranger lands — the Doldrums that makes people there listless; the kingdom Dictionopolis, where one can buy words and letters on market day; the island called Conclusions, where people appear on if they’ve jumped to a conclusion.

“This is Dictionopolis, a happy kingdom, advantageously located in the Foothills of Confusion and caressed by the gentle breezes from the Sea of Knowledge.”

In Dictionopolis, Milo learns that all is not right in the Lands Beyond since the king of Dictionopolis and his brother, the king of Digitopolis, banished the sister princesses, Rhyme and Reason, to the Castle in the Air that floats above the Mountains of Ignorance. With Tock, the dog with the clock, at his side, Milo sets off to rescue the princess while fighting off the demons of Ignorance.

My thoughts:

The Phantom Tollbooth is a wonderful, crazy, quirky story in which Milo learns that there’s much to marvel at in our everyday lives for even the most ordinary things are extraordinary once you take a closer look. It’s a message that I appreciate and which I try to pass on to others. It’s good to slow down every once in a while and appreciate all you have and just admire the beauty of the things we often take for granted or bypass.

Ironically, I read this book at a time when I was unable to do any of that. I read this in the middle of June, when various family members were visiting and there was hardly any time for myself much less read. The only reading I got done was on the train or at lunch at work and the only things I could read were stories that quickly gripped my attention and held it. That didn’t happen with this book.

I kept rushing the story while reading, wondering when would it speed along instead of boggling my mind with twisty words and phrases. Often, I’d say to myself that I don’t have time to read it and would switch to something else. Since I read You at the same time as this book, I switched my focus to You instead because it’s a thriller, quicker to read and I wouldn’t have to suspend belief as much.

This is not to say that The Phantom Tollbooth is a horrible story. I just read it at the wrong time in a foul frame of mind. There were moments in the midst of June when my life slowed down some and when I read the story during those moments, I appreciated it, even loved it. In those moments, it wasn’t hard to suspend belief and the passages that would have seemed too silly for me to bother with were funny and even illuminating. In those moments, I realized that if I’d read this book at an early age, it would have been among my favorites. But those moments didn’t last long and I had obligations to attend to so soon I again found myself willing the story to move faster and getting impatient with its silliness.

“But what of the Castle in the Air?….Let it drift away….And good riddance for no matter how beautiful it seems, it’s still nothing but a prison.”

What I loved about this book is how Juster plays with language. It seems that he had fun writing this. I like that at first glance certain things seem nonsensical but they make sense and even have a lesson packed in. There are proverbs throughout and while reading, a “Ha!” might jump out of you when you see one you’ve heard as a kid and not since then. The story is also encouraging. Milo’s quest to find and rescue the princesses shows kids that anything is possible and to not limit themselves to just dreams of what’s possible, but to also try to make them a reality. I also loved the map. I’d love to get a poster of it.

PhantomTollbooth map

The story might seem simple in some places but I think it’s highly imaginative. There isn’t much description given to places like Dictionopolis to make them believable, but I think more thought is given to the words and phrases and names and lessons because they, more so than the characters and settings, carry the most emphasis.

As for the author, Norton Juster, for some reason I was amazed to learn that he’s an architect. I thought that architecture was the complete opposite to writing. I don’t know why I thought that then. After all, they are both creative fields. But Juster is a pretty interesting dude. I just read an article on him that’s posted on the Smithsonian Magazine website in which the writer discusses why there are various instances in The Phantom Tollbooth where senses are combined — music controls colors, letters have tastes. Apparently, Juster has synesthesia, when two or more senses are activated at once, which he wasn’t aware of until he was an adult.

The article isn’t long and it includes videos from the cartoon adaptation of the book as well as a documentary of the book that should be out soon so I suggest that you take a look.

As for the illustrations, which are by Jules Feiffer, I didn’t like them. There are many who think they are adorable but…ahh….they didn’t appeal to me. In scenes where there are a crowd of characters, it was sometimes hard for me to distinguish the characters from the background. They all seemed to just run into each other. But I did like the illustration of the conductor, Chroma. Actually, now that I think of it, the illustrations of single characters were okay but I wasn’t a fan of the crowded illustrations.

I also read an article on Justin Feiffer and his illustrations for this book. It appeared on the Huffington Post website back in June. Basically it says that Feiffer wasn’t a fan of his illustrations for this book, despite the praises he has received for it. I also suggest that you give this article a read. It’s actually an excerpt from Out of Line: The Art of Jules Feiffer, a book that was published in May. Also, there are several of Feiffer’s illustrations from The Phantom Tollbooth in the article. Take a look.

Overall: ★★★☆☆

It’s a fun, quick, quirky story that I’m sure kids will enjoy. I think it’s a book adults should read as well though many will think it silly.


This is considered a children’s classic novel so I’m adding it to my Classics Club Reading Challenge.

Quotes from the book:

“Words and numbers are of equal value, for, in the cloak of knowledge, one is warp and the other woof.”

“For you can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.”

“For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

“But it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”

“Many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”

“What you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do.”

“So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

Views and reviews

6 thoughts on ““The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster

  1. I think your right about them having fun during the construction of this book, i checked it out on google when you first blogged about it, feiffer couldn’t draw dogs, horses and wasn’t so good at maps, and I think he drew the four horsemen on cats which didn’t impress juster, who did the cooking in there apartment as well as the writing, so if feiffer wanted to eat he had to learn quick or starve 😀
    It is a pretty sad looking dog on the cover!
    I think he used tracing paper and copied horses in the end, but fun i bet they had loads!
    I think it was criticised for been to much over most kids heads.
    Looks like a challenging read :-/ 😀 :-/


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