The Phantom Tollbooth

written by Norman Juster
illustrated by Jules Feiffer

Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth
illustrated by Jules Feiffer

Book review by Elizabeth Markoff

Ages: Middle School

Ride the Turnpike to Adventure

Have you ever wished you could get a quick ticket away from home? Young Milo desires one and is granted his wish one day after school in Norton Juster's 1961 classic The Phantom Tollbooth. He arrives at his apartment, thinking school to be of no value, and sees a gigantic box in the middle of his bedroom. This is the tollbooth, which comes complete with full instructions, a car, a map and fare.

These are helpful to Milo, who has no idea where he is going. Nevertheless, he proceeds on his journey to Dictionopolis, a place he randomly selects.

Review - The Phantom Tollbooth

Boredom is hardly a problem for Milo throughout the book. Very early, he encounters Tock, the watchdog, who scares the liver out of him by pouncing when he is driving in the Doldrums while en route to Dictionopolis. Tock, who has a full clock on his body, ensures that individuals do not waste time. His efforts are not wasted on Milo, who is soon successfully encouraged to think his way out of there. Afterward, both are inseparable.

Milo and Tock's quest becomes bringing princesses Rhyme and Reason back home to Dictionopolis to restore common sense. This is assigned by their father, King Azaz the Unabridged, after they feast with him.

The king's great aunt, Faintly Macabre, tells them the princesses' story. It seems they were banished to the Castle in the Air after being unable to settle an argument between the king and his brother, the Mathemagician, regarding which were more important, words or numbers. Milo and Tock are sent on their trip with a box of all of the words with which the king is familiar. He assures them these will meet all needs if employed appropriately. Humbug, a grumpy insect, joins them on the adventure as he is the best one to serve as their guide as he knows the area.

Review continues...

Milo collage

Puns prevail throughout The Phantom Tollbooth. One of the first people Milo meets is the Whether Man, who assures him he is not involved with natural events but what might happen. When they meet Faintly Macabre, she tells them she is a Which, meaning that she is responsible for word usage in the kingdom rather than anything supernatural. There is also policeman Officer Shrift, an unusually short man all of two feet tall. In addition, they later meet Dynne, a male orphan who is essentially a big black blob who assists Kakofonous A Dischord with the wide variety of noises he peddles from his carnival wagon.

Most of the places Milo visits are fascinating. Dictionopolis itself seems like a variation on Willy Wonka's factory from Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with words growing on trees. They are also on sale in the marketplace, where you can actually buy edible and delicious letters.

In addition, Milo and Tock get to meet the Spelling Bee, who is capable of spelling almost all words; and angry, pugilistic Humbug. The trio goes to a forest where an orchestra of over 1,000 musicians creates all the colors through playing under the direction of Chroma the Great. Unfortunately, if there is no music, everything around becomes a basic black and white sketch. However, the orchestra does continue to play while Chroma sleeps at night, maintaining color for all.

Nonstop entertainment awaits those who wish to read The Phantom Tollbooth. Middle school students will want to put it on their reading lists soon.

Read more of Elizabeth's reviews.

Read a writer's tribute to The Phantom Tollbooth.

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