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Retro Review: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Genre: Portal Fantasy
Age category: Middle Grade
Release Date: September 1961


The Phantom Tollbooth holds a special place in my reader’s journey as a kid. It was read aloud to me in fifth grade–a grade when most kids think they’re too old to still listen to read-alouds. It’s not exactly slim by elementary school standards, and goodness knows how much my teacher had to move lessons around to make that work. I was saddened to learn, years later, that due to higher curriculum demands, he no longer reads the book to his classes. But that just makes it all the more important that I read to my kids, and I finally decided they’re old enough to give The Phantom Tollbooth a try.

The story is centered on a boy named Milo who never has much interest or enthusiasm for anything. Of course, modern writers’ advice says that protagonists need clear goals so we can cheer for them. If they’re not enthusiastic about what they’re doing, how will readers be? But Milo’s honest disillusionment with learning for learning’s sake is so relatable, even decades after the book was written, that it can’t help but draw young readers in. (Seriously, why does “February” have that silent R in the middle? I’m with Milo here.)

One day after school, Milo receives a mysterious gift–a toy tollbooth which transports him to the land of Wisdom. There, he learns that Wisdom is falling apart in the absence of the princesses of Rhyme and Reason. Years ago, the princesses were banished by King Azaz and the Mathemagician after they refused to rule that either brother’s kingdom was superior to the other. Milo, along with his friends Tock and the Humbug, begins a journey across Wisdom to not only bring back Rhyme and Reason but also to re-discover his own love of learning.

There were a few points as I was reading that I started to wonder if maybe my memories of this book were largely rose-colored nostalgia. After all, large sections of the book are dedicated specifically to word play, and these use a lot of vocabulary that I had to explain to my kids as I was reading. (And that I’m pretty sure someone had to explain to me the first time I read it as well.) I’m also first to admit that I’m not sure my kids are latching onto the full significance of lines like, “You can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and still come out completely dry.” But I’m equally sure they don’t get the emotional gut-punch in the ending to Dr. Suess’s The Lorax, either–an ending in which an adult admits to a child he screwed things up really bad, and his only real hope is for the child to care enough about fixing them.

The book, for all its complex and sometimes dated vocabulary, its heavy reliance on wordplay, and its male-dominated cast, does hold up for me. Despite the “rescue the princesses” plot, the female characters in the book still hold positions of authority (or did at some point), and they’ve got relatable flaws like the rest of the characters Milo encounters. Rhyme and Reason’s imprisonment is much more a symptom of everyone’s willful ignorance than it is a symptom of their helplessness. They are always ready with wisdom and advice, but neither are they forcing it on those who won’t listen. Milo’s quest is largely centered around convincing the rulers that the princesses should be freed moreso than actually freeing them.

I’m happy I had this experience to read this book with my own children, and it’ll continue hanging out in its place of honor on my bookshelf.

Rating: 5 out of 5

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One thought on “Retro Review: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

  1. And yet, despite the actor’s audible affection for the book, the story itself struck my middle-aged, 2019 ears as more effortful than effervescent — less Swift or Carroll or Baum than third-rate Marx Brothers. An overextended dad joke with literary aspirations. Listening, I grew glummer and glummer. Great children’s books speak to all age groups, but perhaps “The Phantom Tollbooth” is one of those slightly less great children’s books that offer much to 10-year-olds and not so much to everyone else? Or perhaps time has not been kind to it? Maybe Juster’s earnest, mildly subversive playfulness, which dipped a toe or two into the brewing countercultural energies of the early ’, has turned cloying with age? Well, it

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