Mia (Parentheses Enthusiast)'s Reviews > The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
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I am a reader, and I measure my life in books, and the ones that I read in my very early years were probably the most formative. You can learn a lot about a person by what their childhood was like- whether they played outside all the time or preferred to stay indoors, whether they read or didn't, whether they drew or played sports or learned instruments and languages.

I, for one, loved words. I read many books with large words in them, and so I was always asking my mother what they meant, or looking them up in the dictionary, or trying to just guess. I loved long words, short words, words that were fun to say. I would spell them, write them down, sometimes just say them aloud in strings of total gibberish. Even as a child, I remember being amazed that I could make sounds with my mouth that other people could recognise and understand. The idea that I could say the word "apple," which really is an odd word when you look at it long enough, and that somebody else would know exactly what I was referring to was thrilling.

I used to play a word association game I made up where I would think of a word, then think of a word associated with that word, then a word associated with that word, and on and on until I either tried to get back to the word I started with or tried to see how far I could deviate from my original word. So a game might start with the word "pencil" and go from there to "paper," "bag," "rag," "towel," "trowel," "garden," "green," "leaf," "tree," "wood," "paper." Or I might start with "pencil" and go to "lead," "bed," "jumping," "kangaroo," "pouch," "couch," "sofa," "soda," "bubbles." This all took place in my brain, and sometimes I'd just sit in my room for hours and do this. (I would be lying if I said I didn't still do it occasionally.)

I loved books, too. I loved the idea that somebody could put words down on paper and that I could create a world in my mind based off of those words. From a young age, I followed characters, tried to predict plots, and lived in that lovely world somewhere between reality and imagination that we call literature.

All of this boils down to the fact that, to me, language was a playground. I'd make up words, speak backwards, sometimes go whole stretches of time just spelling out words instead of speaking, like "H-E-L-L-O (space) M-O-M (comma) H-O-W (space) A-R-E (space) Y-O-U (space) D-O-I-N-G (question mark)?" Punctuation, spelling, even fonts and typeface and foreign languages- everything related to words was something I was fond of.

And it all started with The Phantom Tollbooth.

Well, not exactly. I'd been doing a lot of this stuff even before I read the book, but The Phantom Tollbooth really helped to make these qualities stick with me.

Why? Because I felt the way I do whenever I find a great book: that I'm not alone. Norton Juster, through wordplay and illustrations and wit, showed me that language, and, to an even greater extent, knowledge, was a wonderful thing. As I read this book and travelled among the Whether Man, Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason, the Mathemagician, and King Azaz the Unabridged, as I read riddles and jokes and equations and utter nonsense and wise advice and snatches of song, as I ventured with Milo and Tock into the Doldrums and the Lands Beyond, to Dictionopolis and Digitopolis and up over the Mountains of Ignorance, I recognised myself in all of these things, and each one of them told me that I wasn't weird for loving language and reading compulsively and making up words and collecting utterly useless facts. Or more accurately, they told me that I was weird- but that there aren't enough weird people in the world who commit themselves to these things, so it was okay.

You can learn a lot about a person based on the books on their bookshelf: whether they're pristine or worn, whether they're organised or not, whether they've got notes written in the margins or flowers pressed between the covers or the signatures of authors. And if you were to look at my pitifully small bookshelf (the rest of my books reside in two enormous stacks by my bed), you would find a worn, torn, stained, and utterly beloved copy of The Phantom Tollbooth. And perhaps you would be able to tell, just by looking at it, that it taught me one of the most important lessons I've learned: that imagination is a beautiful thing, and even if you think that you're too old for things like word games and math equations and fun facts and puns and stories- things, in short, that bring you knowledge and delight, even if you think you've outgrown them... Deep down, they will never outgrow you.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
August 27, 2013 – Shelved
January 26, 2015 – Shelved as: side-characters-i-love
January 1, 2016 – Shelved as: made-me-think
January 1, 2016 – Shelved as: books-of-my-childhood
January 1, 2016 – Shelved as: fun
January 23, 2016 – Shelved as: books-with-pictures
August 2, 2017 – Shelved as: travels-and-wanderers

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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Jess ❈Harbinger of Blood-Soaked Rainbows❈ Beautiful review, Mia. This is also one of my top top top favorite books.


Anya (~on a semi-hiatus~) Gorgeous review, Mia! As a fellow word lover, your review resonated so well with me. <3


Mia (Parentheses Enthusiast) @Jess Thank you, isn't it such a great book? It has such a special place in my heart.

@Anya Thanks! There's always just been something about words, spoken or written, that I've loved, and I'm glad you share that same love :)

@Fatty Thank you! If I knew the Latin root for "fact," I totally would ;)


message 4: by Anne (new)

Anne Just beautiful, Mia :)


Anuradha I haven't read this book before, and now I need to look for it. Amazing review Mia! :)


Mia (Parentheses Enthusiast) Thanks, Anuradha! I highly recommend it. It's a book for adults as well as kids, and you'll understand all the wordplay and hidden meanings that eluded me when I first read it, and which took me several rereads to truly appreciate.


Anuradha Mia (Parentheses Enthusiast) wrote: "Thanks, Anuradha! I highly recommend it. It's a book for adults as well as kids, and you'll understand all the wordplay and hidden meanings that eluded me when I first read it, and which took me se..."

This could be my " book recommended by a friend." Again, borrowed from your list. :D


Drew Graham Very interesting review. I admit that this book didn't exactly blow me away, but I think that was due to years of talk and hype and finally reading it for myself, and I imagine if I had read it as a kid I might have enjoyed it a little more. I also love words and letters (I have a similarly odd mental game where I mentally alphabetize the letters in words, which has become something of a family joke/game in its heyday), so I totally get it, this one just didn't really do it for me. Maybe if I read it again with my kids in a few years it will mean more to me as a reader and linguaphile.


Mia (Parentheses Enthusiast) I feel like this is the sort of book that's not conducive to hype, and I can definitely see how it would be underwhelming if you psyched yourself up too much. Hopefully your kids enjoy it if you decide to share it with them! :)


Michelle I may not have enjoyed the book *quite* as much as you, but I did enjoy reading your wonderful review! My first book was a dictionary, and I would follow my parents around all day saying words and getting them to tell me what they meant (and checking if they were right), or reading the definitions and getting them to guess the word!

As others have said, I'm looking forwards to reading TPT with my son - I'm sure seeing it again through the eyes of a child will bring a whole new dimension to it!

Stay weird!! xx


message 12: by Mia (Parentheses Enthusiast) (last edited Mar 21, 2016 12:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mia (Parentheses Enthusiast) Michelle wrote: "I may not have enjoyed the book *quite* as much as you, but I did enjoy reading your wonderful review! My first book was a dictionary, and I would follow my parents around all day saying words and ..."

Thanks so much, Michelle! I also had a fascination with dictionaries- my mom had this enormous leather-bound tome bigger than my torso as a child, which I loved flipping through. The pages were extremely thin and the title was stamped in gold ink... I have fond memories of that book :)

I hope your son enjoys The Phantom Tollbooth and it makes me so happy that parents can continue a great tradition.


Tiana Hadnt Thank you for this review!!! I have always loved this book. I just listened to it on audio and several of the little lessons were just what I needed to be reminded of.
I find that most of the people who love this book really get it. There's wordplay, yes, and fun stuff. But I think that at its heart, it's a story meant to teach us how to find beauty and fun and intrigue in the world around us. How sometimes, all the adventure we need is right outside the door, or even on a shelf in the same room. As Milo learns, we learn with him.
For those who don't enjoy it, I think largely that they are missing the point of the book. It's not meant to be a typical fantasy story where you get amazing descriptions that are paragraphs long about the world they're in. It's meant to be a book about people. And I think there are tons of things in here that you can't really grasp unless you're and adult or an older teen. I learned a lot from re-reading it as an adult and I'm looking forward to
reading it again.


Mia (Parentheses Enthusiast) Thanks for your lovely comment, Tiana! I agree that there are some things you can only really understand as you reread- I read The Phantom Tollbooth as a child and again as a precocious tween, but I've not read it recently. It's one of the sacred few books I call my "armchair books", as they're the equivalent of a favourite armchair- comfortable, known, beloved, classic. As I've gotten older my armchair books change (currently they're fantasies like The Hobbit & The Lies of Locke Lamora and sprawling odysseys like The Shadow of the Wind), but it's like Neil Gaiman said: "Books you read when you're the right age never really leave you." TPT is, and always will be, one of those books for me :)


Emer (A Little Haze) Oh what a truly brilliant review Mia! You've made me all sentimental and emotional thinking about my own childhood spent reading and about the books that meant a lot to me. I must confess I've never heard of this particular book, I guess it never made its way to my small town library when I was little (because I think I read practically every child's book in my small local library back then!) but I will definitely seek it out now. Gorgeous review :)))


Mia (Parentheses Enthusiast) Thanks, Emer! I was always in the town library as a kid too, I spent a lot of weekends sitting on a stool tucked away in a corner, reading books like The Phantom Tollbooth (which I eventually bought). We also had a school library at my elementary school and everyone was allowed to check out two books every Friday- one picture book and one chapter book- but I loved chapter books so much that I cajoled my way into the librarian's good graces so that she'd let me check out more on the down-low. XD


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