The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, originally published in 1961. 272 pages.
We read The Phantom Tollbooth this semester as part of a middle school writing and literature class I taught. It’s an interesting, fantastical book and initially, I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to it. Throughout the school year, there have been differing verdicts offered by the kids on various books and rarely a consensus. However, this book drew unanimous approval from each of the students. The sample size is pretty small, but since I agreed with their opinion, it’s safe to say it’s a great middle grade book.
The opening chapter offers a description of Milo, the reluctant hero of our story:
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.
The link above leads to the entire first chapter as reprinted on NPR. It’s an excellent chance to get a fuller picture of Milo, as his ennui sets the stage for his adventure into the world opened up to him through the mysterious gift of a phantom tollbooth which appeared in his room.
In this alternate reality, Milo encounters a wholly different world from anything he has ever known. One where things and people make little sense even though they fascinate him in ways he has never imagined.
The thing that my students enjoyed most about this book was the combination of literal and metaphorical elements. For instance, one of the first groups of people Milo meets on his journey is a strange set of creatures known as “The Lethargarians”. They are weird, slug-like, live in a place known as “The Doldrums”, and their lives are lived as their name suggests. After outlining for Milo their detailed schedule of daily events which consist of little more than various forms of dawdling and daydreaming, they explain to him why the itinerary is so strict:
“As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we’d never get nothing done.”
“You mean you’d never get anything done,” corrected Milo.
“We don’t want to get anything done,” snapped another angrily; “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.”
“You see,” continued another in a more conciliatory tone, “it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along. Would you care to join us?”
“I might as well,” thought Milo; “that’s where I seem to be going anyway.”
“Tell me,” he yawned, for he felt ready for a nap now himself, “does everyone here do nothing?”
“Everyone but the terrible watchdog,” said two of them, shuddering in chorus. “He’s always sniffing around to see that nobody wastes time. A most unpleasant character.”
Tock, the literal watchdog is just one of the many intriguing and bizarre characters Milo encounters on his trip to Dictionopolis and on to a quest to be the hero of this strange world he has encountered as a result of his trip through the mysterious tollbooth.
Each character he encounters on his journey, from Tock to the Humbug to the Mathemagician and the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, adds a new layer of understanding and adventure to Milo’s journey. As a result, he ultimately learns that time is precious and his own world is full of fascinating things to learn and do.
4 out of 5 stars
No content advisory necessary.
Reading level: late elementary to early middle school. Younger students who are strong readers would have not trouble decoding, some of the allegorical notes may require explanation.