Shel's Reviews > The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
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May 28, 12

bookshelves: middle-grade, young-adult

Juster, N. (1961). The Phantom Tollbooth. New York: Dell Yearling.

256 pages.


If you would have asked me a couple of months ago, I would have sworn that I never read The Phantom Tollbooth. Ever. When I finally listened to the audio book and then picked up a paperback copy, I started to realize a few of the characters Milo meets seemed...familiar.


It turns out I *did* read the classic novel sometime around the fourth or fifth grade. It just didn't leave much of an impression. In fact, I'm pretty sure I thought it was boring with an image or two capturing my interest every now and then (like Alec, who always had the same point of view and so walked on air waiting to "grow down" and reach his full height, or like Milo leading an orchestra in the sunrise).


As an adult though, my impression has changed. (Although, Alec the boy who walks in the air and conducting an orchestra in colors are still two of my favorite moments.)



Appetizer: Milo is one out of sorts little boy. He just doesn't know what to do with himself. He's not interested in anything. One day, he arrives home to find someone has delivered a small car, a map and the phantom tollbooth. After going through the tollbooth, Milo finds himself in a fantastic land, where cities named Dictionopolis and Digitopolis are always at odds. The only hope for the entire country is to bring back the princesses Rhyme and Reason to the country. Milo, along with some of the friends he makes along the way, may have the best chance at restoring rhyme and reason to the land.

With lots of play with language and filled with observations about culture, I wouldn't call The Phantom Tollbooth a plot driven novel by any means. (At that could have been part of my problem as a fourth or fifth grader.) Instead of tension, the novel is more episodic revealing witty observations and critiques of culture and language. I think it is a book that, when used with kids, an adult should help mediate the experience, to help the kids know what it is they should be taking away from the story.

For my students, the aspect of the novel that seemed to strike them the most was the conflict and companionship between language and mathematics. By chance, I wound up with a lot of students who plan to be math teachers someday. Generally, a lot of future math teachers are unhappy that they are required to take my course, which inherently favors language arts and social studies. So, it seemed to be an inspiring and powerful message that our first book explored this supposed battle between math and language (through the conflict between Digitopolis and Dictionopolis). I even got the best-est email ever from a student saying they couldn't wait to incorporate The Phantom Tollbooth and other literature into his math classroom. (YAY)

My students are now in the exact right place for me to show them my favorite picturebook series about math EVER:



Don't you just see this book and want to read it?

If I'd had a teacher who'd shown me this series's mix of fantasy, history and math when I was younger maybe I would have enjoyed math a little more.

Despite all of the wonderful and witty explorations of idioms and discussions of math and how they go hand-in-hand, my students still came to the conclusion that language was favored throughout The Phantom Tollbooth since more chapters were set in Dictionopolis than in Digitopolis. But we did discuss how we loved the fact that a pencil is described as a "magic staff" capable of great power and magic. That is such a powerful metaphor. I love it!

Sidenote--I originally listened to the audio book of this novel and it caused me to declare it to be THE MOST BORING BOOK EVER. Reading it myself made it much more enjoyable for some reason or another. Something for you readers of the world to be aware of.


Dinner Conversation:

"There was once a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself--not just sometimes, but always.
When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him--least of all the things that should have" (p. 9).

"Suddenly he found himself speeding along an unfamiliar country highway, and as he looked back over his shoulder neither the tollbooth nor his room nor even the house was anywhere in sight. What had started as make-believe was nor very real" (p. 16).

"Well, then," said Milo, not understanding why each one said the same thing in a slightly different way, "wouldn't it be simpler to use just one? It would certainly make more sense."
"Nonsense."
"Ridiculous."
"Fantastic."
"Absurd."
"Bosh," they chorused again, and continued.
"We're not interested in making sense; it's not our job," scolded the first." (p. 40)

"And so they were taking from the palace and sent far away to the Castle in the Air, and they have not been seen since. This is why today, in all this land, there is neither Rhyme nor Reason."
"And what happened to the two rulers?" asked Milo.
"Banishing the two princesses was the last thing they ever agreed upon, and they soon fell to warring with each other. Despite this, their own kingdoms have continued to prosper, but the old city of Wisdom has fallen into great disrepair, and there is no one to set things right." (p. 77)
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