The Phantom Tollbooth

by Norton Juster

Cover image

Publisher: Dell Yearling
Copyright: August 1961
Printing: October 1988
ISBN: 0-394-82037-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 256

Buy at Powell's Books

I read this book long ago as a kid and remembered loving it, but didn't remember very much about it. It came up from time to time in rememberences about children's books, but I didn't really think about it until recently when I found an interview with Norton Juster on Powell's. Reading that interview and the bits in it from The Phantom Tollbooth, I fell in love with the language all over again and had to pick up a copy so that I could re-read it.

This is quite possibly the best didactic children's book ever written, and is certainly one of the most unusual. I add the didactic qualifier to distinguish it from various fantasies and more traditional stories, since The Phantom Tollbooth is a book that's trying to say something, to teach philosophy and learning from the very beginning. It is a very difficult genre to do well without preaching, and I've never read any book that succeeds as well.

From the first town of Expectations (which sadly many journeys never reach beyond), through the Island of Conclusions (an easy trip by jumping, but more attractive from a distance), and on to the many demons of the Mountains of Ignorance, The Phantom Tollbooth is a delight of sparkling wordplay and common sense, intermixed with touches of the random and absurd. More than anyone else, it reminds me of Lewis Carroll; it is perhaps less random and more obvious in its philosophies, but the delight in language and thought is recognizably present. My favorite parts are the pointed skewerings of stupidity all too often found in adults — the Three Demons of Compromise, for instance, one tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third exactly like the other two. But almost every page has some small delight, like the watchdog (who has the body of a watch) sitting down and scratching himself at 4:30, or the protester asking for the release of sounds carrying a banner reading "HEAR HERE."

A quick read for adults, I still found this book a delight, and can recommend it highly to anyone. It is at its heart a children's book, though, and if you have children who love language and word play, I cannot think of a better book to give them.

If you've read The Phantom Tollbooth and are looking for more, keep an eye out for Juster's picture book The Dot & the Line. It's not as sophisticated, and is quite a bit shorter, but it has the same sense of humor.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-07-02

Last spun 2022-02-06 from thread modified 2013-01-04