The Phantom Tollbooth

Book: The Phantom Tollbooth
Author: Norton Juster
Illustrator: Jules Feiffer
Publisher: Bullseye Books, reprinted in 1988
ISBN-13: 978-0812451788 (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 0812451783 (Hardcover)
ISBN-13: 978-0394820378 (Paperback)
ISBN-10: 0394820371 (Paperback)
Related website: (publisher)
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Ages 10-12 and up
Rating: **** 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
Disclosure: Many publishers and/or authors provide copies of their books in exchange for an honest review without requiring a positive opinion. Any books donated to Home School Book Review for review purposes are in turn donated to a library. No other compensation has been received for the reviews posted on Home School Book Review.
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Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth (published in 1961 by Yearling, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House Inc., New York City, NY). Milo is a ten-year-old boy who lives with his mom and dad in an apartment building. Milo is bored with about everything and sees no point in learning arithmetic, geography, or spelling. One day, he comes home from school to find a large toy turnpike tollbooth sitting in his room and drives the small electric car which he hasn’t used in months—or was it years?—through to a place called Expectations. He eventually learns that the old Kingdom of Wisdom was divided into two realms, Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. Coming to Dictionopolis, which is ruled by King Azaz the Unabridged, Milo finds that all is not well because the Princesses Rhyme and Reason have been banished to the Castle in the Air in the Mountains of Ignorance as a result of a dispute between the king and the ruler of Digitopolis.

Meeting the not-so-wicked “Which,” Faintly Macabre, Milo is given the “impossible” mission of returning the two princesses to the Kingdom of Wisdom. With the help of a watchdog named Tock and the foolish yet lovable Humbug, he begins a memorable journey through Digitopolis, ruled by the Mathemagician, to the Mountains of Ignorance where all kinds of demons dwell. Will they be able to rescue the princesses? Can they escape the pursuing demons? And will Milo ever make it back home? This ingenious fantasy is somewhat allegorical. A lot of kids, and even some adults, might find much of the story nonsensical, but perceptive readers, in which category I would include most homeschoolers, should appreciate not only the humor woven into the narrative but also the underlying principles as Milo learns that life is far from dull and meaningless but actually exciting beyond his wildest dreams.

Here are a couple of my favorite excerpts. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to keep you from doing what you really should be doing.” And, “It’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters….Whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else.” Author Norton Juster, who is also an architect and planner, provides a great answer to those age-old student objections, “Why do I have to study this or that? It’s boring. What possible use to me could it ever be?” The Phantom Tollbooth is an enjoyable book if you’re willing to put a little effort into reading between the lines.

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