The Phantom Tollbooth

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Phantom Tollbooth Book Poster Image
Trip to enchanted world excites learning in kids' classic.
Popular with kidsParents recommend

Parents say

age 8+
Based on 7 reviews

Kids say

age 8+
Based on 14 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Being dedicated to advancing the pursuit of knowledge, this book is fairly packed with educational material and clever perspectives on it. Wordplay and math problems are strewn exuberantly, along with commentary on social ills wrought by ignorance and mental laziness. Many of the whimsical characters Milo encounters along the way invite readers to look at long-held assumptions in new ways -- e.g., the airborne Alec Bings, who thinks Milo must be quite old to have his feet touching the ground already.

Positive Messages

This book is driven by the view that learning is not only good and fun, but also a moral imperative. In the "Appreciation" foreword added in 1996, Maurice Sendak points out that it was actually compared to the robust Puritan spiritual tract Pilgrim's Progress for its "awakening of the lazy mind." The book begins with main character Milo thinking that life is boring and the pursuit of knowledge is worthless, but by the end, Milo has both the interest and the tools for learning, and a considerably more upbeat outlook.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Most of the characters except Milo are essentially figures that exist to illustrate some concept (as with the princesses Reason and Rhyme) or cartoonish wordplays (as with Tock, the Watch Dog, whose midsection is, literally, a watch). Milo learns something from each of them. 

Violence & Scariness

There are confrontations with demons, but comical villains like the Overbearing Know-It-All and the Terrible Trivium are unlikely to strike terror into the most tender-hearted of readers.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this is an enduring classic that has charmed readers for more than 50 years.  For some younger kids, the academic subject matter may be a little too advanced, and hence boring. Different aspects will appeal to different kids -- some will find the puns hysterical, others will gravitate more to the math or Jules Feiffer's whimsical illustrations. If you're looking for robust, swashbuckling adventure with three-dimensional characters and a fast-moving plot, this is not your book. But if you want a vivid illustration of the perils of jumping to conclusions, The Phantom Tollbooth is for you. Note: The 1970 animated film version fails to convey the book's depth.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 7 year old Written bySheSpeeds March 12, 2014

This is my favorite childhood book!!

I'm so excited that my son is now old enough that he too might enjoy the Phantom Tollbooth. We are reading it together at night, since the vocabulary is a... Continue reading
Parent of a 9 and 9 year old Written byEmi B. August 28, 2017

A Classic for Good Reasons

Rollicking, humorous read for future grammar police, and their parents. So imaginative! Will definitely look for more by this author. Wish all authors and illus... Continue reading
Kid, 12 years old March 5, 2012

loved it !!!!

omg.this book is absolutly amazing!!!!it reminded me of alice in wonderland except a little bit less drugy.my sister loved Milo so much that now i have a nephew... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old November 7, 2011

great book!

i really liked this book. it was great and it's really out of this world and stuff. it's awesome!

What's the story?

Young Milo is bored in school and bored with life, not seeing the point of much of anything. In the midst of this funk, he comes home from school to find a mysterious tollbooth in his apartment and, for lack of anything better to do, hops in his little electric car and drives through it. Ultimately, accompanied by a Watch Dog named Tock and a strange creature called the Humbug, he sets forth on a quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from dire captivity, seeing many peculiar sights and meeting many interesting characters along the way -- as well as getting an introduction to numerous academic concepts.

Is it any good?

Clearly a book by an unabashedly brainy adult, it evangelizes intellectualism with glee, which some kids are going to find more entertaining than others. But a book does not remain a hit for more than half a century without striking a chord in the hearts of a sizeable audience, and THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH has garnered a huge, multi-generational following.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how easy it is not to think about what you're doing, and how much trouble you can get into that way. The book is full of silly examples, but you can probably think of plenty of your own.

  • What are you most interested in learning about, in or outside of school? What do you find boring? Why do you think it's boring? What might make you change your mind?

  • If you could go on a quest with your choice of companions, where would you go, what would be your task, and who would you take along?

Book details

For kids who love fantasy

Our editors recommend

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality and learning potential.

Learn how we rate