The Phantom Tollbooth

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

Parents say

age 8+
Based on 10 reviews

Kids say

age 8+
Based on 17 reviews

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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 11, 18+, and 18+-year-old Written byGoodyGoody1 November 15, 2020

One of the best books ever written for children and adults alike!

We hve read this book multipe times. It is great one to read every few years. It gets better the older you get. It is the ultimate ode to learning and the impo... Continue reading
Adult Written byChristina V. January 25, 2017

Christina's review

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is a book about a kid named Milo, he does not know what to do with life and everything to him is boring. He did not reall... Continue reading
Teen, 17 years old Written byLILA300 June 17, 2020

Worst book ever

I literally hate this book. It's just so weird. And when the teacher kept trying to read it to us I was so mad cause i didn't understand a word. May... Continue reading
Kid, 12 years old November 16, 2014

Meh.. Okay

First off, I liked the book. It was really cute and reminded me of Alice in wonderland(which is a much better alternative). But I found that most kids in my cl... Continue reading

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

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy

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