The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

May 25, 2012

My parents read to me a lot when I was little, but somehow they missed The Phantom Tollbooth. In fact, I had never even heard the title until, oh, maybe a year or so ago. And then it was like the floodgates opened, and I heard about it everywhere. I find it so funny that I could go for 27 years and never hear mention of it, and then, randomly, there's no end to it . Was I just not paying attention before?

I decided that since it is somewhat of a classic (it was published in 1961 and seems to have held its popularity, at least among adults), I wanted to read it for myself.

It is about a young boy named Milo who, bored out of his mind and with very little imagination, discovers a magic tollbooth kit in his room. He constructs the tollbooth, drives his car through it (yes, lucky for him, he had his own small car), and finds himself in the Kingdom of Wisdom. (It seems that, perhaps, his imagination was not so bad after all...) Upon learning of a longstanding feud between brothers, King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician, which resulted in the princesses Rhyme and Reason being banished, Milo decides to rescue them and hopefully save the kingdom.

I read children's novels for two reasons: First, for myself, because I honestly and sincerely enjoy them, and second, for my children; I want to know which ones to share with them as they get older. To be quite honest, I'm having a hard time reconciling this book from either point of view.

From an adult's perspective, I thought that many of the puns and turns of phrase were extremely clever and funny. In fact, after listening to the first few chapters, I told my husband he should listen to it, too, because I thought he would enjoy the wit. But the actual plot held very little appeal for me. I wasn't engaged in Milo's journey but kept listening because I enjoyed the words.

So then I started wondering if my children would enjoy it in a few years. While they probably would like Milo and Tock the watchdog and the Humbug, I don't know if those things would hold their interest enough to sustain them through the wordiness and wordplay that comprises so much of the book.

I feel like I'm being disloyal since this book seems to be so universally loved. If any of you loved it as a child, maybe you can cast some additional perspective on the subject. Also, I'm so curious if it is a book that children are falling in love with today or if it is mainly adults who are holding onto it as a classic.

I checked out the audio book from my local library.


  1. We never read this book to you because I had it as a child and didn't really like it. It just was not one of my favorites.

  2. As a fellow children's lit reader, I thought I'd give my two cents. I loved this book as a kid because I liked the characters and the jokes and the adventure. And, having just reread it last year, I can say that I love it even more now. My husband and I are writers, largely academic writers, but authors nonetheless and my goodness! is The Phantom Tollbooth full of writing puns! Even all of the math and music jokes are based on Juster's ability to turn a phrase. So that's why I love it, and why I've recommended it to my husband, who will, I'm sure, delight in its refusal to take grammar rules too seriously.

    I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it as much but my advice would be not to worry too much about that. There are too many great books in the world to waste your time on one you don't love.


Proudly designed by Mlekoshi playground