Friday, September 6, 2013

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth is a book full of adventure. It is a tale of friendship and bravery. But most of all, it is a story told so cleverly that it leaves one in awe of the imagination and wit of its author Norton Juster. I wish I had written this book!

The basic story has to do with Milo, a young boy who doesn't find the world to be a very interesting place. There is nothing that excites him. Every day is the same. Dull. But one day he comes home from another boring day at school to find a box in his room that was not there that morning. It turns out to be a tollbooth complete with two coins. He assembles it, gets in his little car, inserts one of the coins in the slot and drives through.

What happens next is the tale. He arrives in a land that is full of the oddest, most enchanting characters you will ever meet. There are King Azaz the Unabridged, who rules the kingdom of words (Dictionopolis) and his brother the Mathemagician who rules the kingdom of numbers (Digitopolis). The brothers haven't gotten along with each other for years, ever since they banished the princesses Rhyme and Reason, their sisters, from the kingdom and sent to them to Castle in the Air. 

Milo, accompanied by the dog Tock whose body contains a clock that ticks, and Humbug, the pompous bug, set out to rescue the princesses thereby bringing Rhyme and Reason back to the kingdom.

The story is told with puns and jokes, plays on words, riddles, and idioms taken literally. The use of language is so sparkling that it is difficult to describe how laugh-out-loud funny it is. You just have to experience it for yourself.

This book was published in 1961 and it has aged well. There is not a misstep to be found. Adults will appreciate the skillful way Mr. Juster weaves so many vocabulary words into the story.

Here is a bit from Milo's visit to Digitopolis:

Milo glanced curiously at the strange circular room, whose sixteen tiny arched windows corresponded exactly to the sixteen points of the compass. Around the entire circumference were numbers from zero to three hundred and sixty, marking the degrees of the circle  and on the floor, walls, tables, chairs, desks, cabinets, and ceiling were labels showing their heights, widths, depths, and distances to and from each other. To one side was a gigantic note pad set on an artist's easel, and from hooks and strings hung a collection of scales, rulers, measures, weights, tapes, and all sorts of other devices for measuring any number of things in every possible way.

I first read this book about five or six years ago. It gets better (if possible) upon rereading. If there happens to be a copy of it sitting on your child's bookshelf, by all means ask to borrow it. You will be delighted.


  1. My sons loved this book. Your review made me smile. I should get it at the library and read it again!

    Joyce in KS

    1. It is such a fun book on so many levels, Joyce. I can see how it would appeal to children but adults are going to get more of the plays on words and puns. Sometimes I had to read a name out loud to get the joke!

  2. I just loved this book, and I'm glad you liked it too. The language usage is just so much FUN. I know I'll read it again someday.

    1. It is just too delightful. I really did laugh out loud at Mr. Juster's cleverness.