The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

by Norton Juster

Jules Feiffer, illustrations

Alfred A. Knopf, 1961

256 pp.

Age: 10+

Interests: word play, puns, adventure, nonsense, fantasy, science, math, modern fairy tales, philosophy

Also by this author: The Dot and the Line, The Hello, Goodbye Window, Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie, Otter Nonsense

Also by this author & illustrator: The Odious Ogre

Milo dislikes school and is bored with everything, until the day he receives a mysterious package – a cardboard tollbooth with assembly instructions and a map. He drives his little electric car through it into the Kingdom of Wisdom, where abstract notions, English language idioms and puns come to life. After many adventures he sets out with two companions – watchdog Tock and the blustery Humbug – to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from the castle in the sky, and bring peace back to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

This is a fairy tale with a very modern outlook, as abstract concepts of language, science, math and life are made concrete, and petty bureaucrats, politicians and kings are mocked while the joy of knowledge is celebrated. On one hand as surreal and nonsensical a place as Alice’s Wonderland, the Kingdom of Wisdom also holds real lessons about how words and ideas can be manipulated and twisted to prevent you from reaching your goals.

This book is devilishly difficult to describe, so here are a few illustrative examples: on the road to Expectations Milo enters the Doldrums, a place where nothing ever happens, and where the Lethargians tell him it is against the law to think. In Dictionopolis he visits the Market Place where words are sold and attends a feast where everybody literally eats their own words. He meets a witch who actually turns out to be a “Which”, a person who advises the king on which word should be used. A conductor named Chroma leads an orchestra playing all the colours of the sunset, and the Soundkeeper files away every sound ever made since the beginning of time in a vast archive of drawers, boxes and envelopes. The Mathemagician serves up subtraction stew, which makes you hungrier and hungrier the more you eat. And Milo and his friends at one point literally jump to conclusions, as they are launched out of their car and all the way to the Island of Conclusions.

The climax of their quest leads them through a land of monsters: the Triple Demons of Compromise, the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, the Overbearing Know-it-All, the Gross Exaggeration… but the most chilling for me were the Senses-Taker (robbing them of their wits by asking an endless stream of pointless questions), and the Terrible Trivium, a faceless gentleman who deters you from your goal by providing an infinite number of pointless tasks to perform.

Tock the "watchdog"

While many of the characters are silly and nonsensical, there is a deadly serious undercurrent throughout, a warning against those who would confuse and obfuscate and turn you from the right path. It’s a morality play on how important it is to think for yourself. It’s the perfect book to read at any and every age, for it yields new insights as the reader gains knowledge and experience.

So that’s the book, and it has been adored and revered by young readers for fifty years. I am ashamed to say that I did not read it as a child, but happily I’ve now corrected that oversight. I enjoyed reading The Phantom Tollbooth this week, but it was only when I got to that awful Trivium that I recognized the bane of my own existence – those endless tasks that keep me from what I should be doing – and felt a delicious shiver down my spine. This book certainly has something for everyone.

I read the 50th anniversary edition, which has an “Appreciation” by Maurice Sendak and essays by various fans at the end. A woman who read it as a child in the U.S.S.R. writes movingly about how the book provided her with a kind of mental defense against an authoritarian society. And a teacher tells how she read the book to every fifth-grade class she had for her entire career and based countless lesson plans upon its pages.

Which leads to the sticky question of what age should/could enjoy this book most. According to the teacher (Bev Walnoha), reading it aloud to ten-year-olds is probably just at the cusp of their understanding of the concepts and idioms… but the story is so wonderful that they still dive into discussions with enthusiasm. Just be prepared to explain things.

When it was first published The Phantom Tollbooth was criticized for being too difficult for its audience. As Norton Juster puts it in a recent interview:

When the book first came out in the early ’60s, the revealed wisdom was that you could not give kids anything to read beyond what they knew already. There were vocabulary lists. Lord help you if you put words in a book for ages 6 to 8, or 8 to 10 that they felt a child of that age couldn’t understand. They also thought that fantasy was very bad for children because it disoriented them. It’s changed somewhat for the better. The publishers told me that they had great misgivings because they thought that the book was too far beyond children.

But I’ve found in my travels, talking with kids, that they like the story and if a story is compelling for them, they’ll get by any difficulty. They’ll get involved with something that interests them. I think that’s the great secret; it’s being interesting rather than sticking to those artificial standards that they set up.

I think this gives the biggest clue to why young readers love this book so – Juster did not write down to them, he challenged them, made them think, and gave them a story so funny and intriguing that they couldn’t put it down.

Things haven’t changed so much, unfortunately. I can vouch that the ‘conventional wisdom’ still exists within children’s television circles, certainly, that one must avoid at all costs any words that the audience might not understand. We pander to children, we make things easy and effortless, and then wonder why they remain indifferent to our efforts.

One more quote from Juster from the interview:

Almost any time you start with a message and write your book from that you’re in big trouble. We convey many messages in the things that we write, but in many cases, especially with children, you don’t want to end with “This is what you should think.” You want to end with something that says, “Now, you think about it.” To a child, and to an adult, too, what you discover by yourself, or what you think you discover by yourself, is what stays. Especially with children — they’re immediately suspicious of anything that they’re told.

Isn’t that perfect? Now go and read this book.


A wonderful New Yorker article on the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth by Adam Gopnik. This piece includes more about the actual writing of the book and the involvement of Juster’s friend Jules Feiffer in providing the marvellous illustrations.

And here’s the Norton Juster interview from (by Laura Miller).


(The 50th Anniversary Edition of The Phantom Tollbooth is available at

(For fans: Leonard Marcus’ Annotated The Phantom Tollbooth, also from

jumping to Conclusions

Dr. Kakofonous A. Discord

the Terrible Trivium


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cassie
    Mar 25, 2012 @ 14:18:53



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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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