The Phantom Tollbooth

by Norton Juster (1962)

Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth is perhaps the wittiest children’s book ever written. Juster’s classic is based on wordplay and puns – knowing jokes that disarm and continually surprise the reader with each new juxtaposition and disorientation. Juster defies expectations in the simplest, unexpected way – sending a lonely, bored boy named Milo into a fantastic world.

This is no Narnia…instead Milo must come to terms with Tock, the “time-keeping” dog that ticks; with the (naturally grumpy) Humbug; with the two (very different) kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, respectively – and then Milo is finally entrusted with the rescue of the Princesses Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason. It would give away too much to describe the other characters he meets and lessons he learns.

Better to ask – how do you read a book like this to an entire elementary school population? And the answer is that The Phantom Tollbooth operates like a Pixar film: younger children needn’t get all the jokes to be enthralled. The story moves from chapter to chapter and new venue to new venue. In each chapter young children will meet strange silly characters who challenge Milo with their strange view of the world.

And with Jules Feiffer’s winsome drawings to lead the way – nearly all children will be beguiled and immersed in the world of The Phantom Tollbooth – and follow along with fascination and glee. And that is all to the good – because it will allow parents and teachers and students all to explore and revel in the lessons and wordplay within.

The Phantom Tollbooth is full of words. Not too many words – but many, many delights. As one king’s ministers say, “One word is as good as another – so why not use them all?”

In The Phantom Tollbooth – there is a Synonym Bug. What a way to celebrate and explore the Arts of Language – through a sly and winning novel!

But The Phantom Tollbooth is full of wisdom, too. One character “swims in the Sea of Knowledge – and comes up dry.” Wary of revealing too much – we entreat you to consider Norton Juster’s classic. See if you don’t wind up enthralling and inspiring a new generation of parents – along with their children.