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The Phantom Tollbooth

Trip to enchanted world excites learning in kids' classic.
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What parents need to know

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

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.

Not applicable

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.

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.

Families can talk 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

Author:Norton Juster
Illustrator:Jules Feiffer
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Yearling Books
Publication date:August 12, 1961
Number of pages:272
Publisher's recommended age(s):9 - 12

This review of The Phantom Tollbooth was written by

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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 sister loved Milo so much that now i have a nephew named joke.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
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!
Kid, 8 years old April 1, 2012

fascinating book

I think this book is great for 8 year olds that like to read a bit of suspense and chasing around. I feel really fascinated to read on to what is next. Everything in the story is interesting and I am always eager to know everything that is going to happen. This book is very lively and for kids that get really bored a lot, they will get all fascinated and everything when they read this book . This books is about a boy called Milo and he used to be very bored until one day in his room he finds a tollbooth. And he goes to 2 worlds, digitopolis and the other was about letters. So kings of each place are long enemies and Milo tricks both into agreeing to save 2 princesses from a castle above the clouds. After I read it I thought that this book is really good and I also thought that this book is very educational and I feel excited to read more of this author's books. I felt sad for Milo because he used to be very bored. But then I felt happy for Milo because his life became very exciting and full of happiness.