Tuesday, February 9, 2010


The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

“There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always.” So begins Norton Juster’s wonderful book The Phantom Tollbooth, a tale of adventure, words, numbers and, above all, the joy, frustration and sometimes sheer bafflement of education.

When Milo receives a mysterious present – the phantom tollbooth of the title – it leads him and his little electric car into the Kingdom of Wisdom where he meets amongst others Tock the Watchdog, the Humbug, The Spelling Bee (s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g) King Azaz the Unabridged of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis.

You see, the Kingdom of Wisdom is in turmoil since the Princesses Rhyme and Reason were banished to the Castle In the Air and it's up to Milo, assisted by Tock and sometimes hindered by the Humbug, to bring them back so that harmony can be restored.

What follows is a series of colourful and clever adventures as Milo attempts to complete his quest – his meeting with the world’s smallest giant, the world’s tallest midget, the world’s fattest thin man and the world’s thinnest fat man (all of whom just happen to be the same person), a trip to the Island of Conclusions (which you can only get to by jumping) Dr Dischord and the awful DYNNE and ultimately a trip to the Mountains of Ignorance and a meeting with its terrible demons (including the Triple Demons of Compromise – one tall and thin, one short and fat and the third exactly like the other two).

First published in 1961, The Phantom Tollbooth has along since been acknowledged as a children’s classic – a book to rank along Alice in Wonderland or Watership Down in terms of its wit, invention and steadfast refusal to talk down to its readership.

I confess that I have only read it quite recently (which is a shocking oversight on my behalf) and was totally captivated by The Phantom Tollbooth. There are moments of genuine terror for young Milo as well as moments of sheer joy and utter hilarity. Norton Juster’s delight in both words and numbers is never less than infectious and his boundless imagination takes everyday things and phrases and breathes gloriously new literary life into them: the banquet where everyone literally eats their own words, the not-so-wicked Which and the aforementioned awful DYNNE are just some of the delights awaiting readers both old and young.

One of the joys of good children’s literature is its ability to reach across the generations, something that The Phantom Tollbooth manages with deceptive ease. If you’ve never read it, read it now, if you’ve read it before, read it again. Your smile will thank you.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I read this book over and over when I was a kid. My name was probably written on the check-out card more than any other kid's in school. Now that I've read your post, I'm of a mind to go over to Amazon.com and buy a copy of the book.