The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I tried…I really tried…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the phantom tollboothMilo is an irritating kind of child – finds school boring, can’t quite see the point of learning maths, doesn’t pay attention to the things around him and is eternally bored. Irritating but normal, I’d say. Then one day he discovers a mysterious package in his bedroom which turns out to be a magical tollbooth that transports him to another world. And soon he is on a quest to return Rhyme and Reason to this strange land…

Oh, dear! I tried so hard to like this. A lot of it is quite imaginative – the conductor who plays the colours of the day, the numbers’ mine, some of the wordplay. But most of the ‘quirky’ characters are thinly-disguised teachers, banging home their unsubtle message that we must all learn how to read and count, and pay attention at school etc etc. At first, I assumed my negative reaction was because I was just too old for it (and I’m sure that is a large part of the reason). But then I remembered my childhood reaction to the dreaded The Water Babies, with its hideous pair of monstrous horrors,                                          Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid – a book I thoroughly hated and despised when I was young for its preachy and patronising tone (while I’m pretty sure I missed most of the satirical elements of it). Although The Phantom Tollbooth is undoubtedly more fun, I realised it follows the same pattern of unsubtle moralising and lesson-teaching all the way through.

“That’s why you’re here. You weren’t thinking, and you weren’t paying attention either. People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.”

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them.”

“For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few [words], it is often far worse to use too many.”

the phantom tollbooth map

Then there are the bits that I’m sure grated with me far more as an adult than they would as a child. But I do feel if an author sets out to preach about how important education is, then he has some responsibility for getting his facts right, even when he’s aiming for humour – else how is a child to learn properly? (The same criticism applies to the grammatical errors in the book…)

“We offer you the hospitality of our kingdom.”
“Do all those words mean the same thing?” gasped Milo.
“Of course.”
“Yes,” they replied in order.

Clever, isn’t it? Of course, it’s also completely
and did I mention wrong?


Rhyme and Reason practice synchronised preaching - poor Milo looks a bit like how I felt by that stage...
Rhyme and Reason practice synchronised preaching – poor Milo looks a bit like how I felt by that stage…

However, I recognise from all the comments made at the time of the poll that many people adore this book, as children and as adults, so I’ll stop criticising it now. This is one of those cases where I’m happy to admit that my reaction might be a bit unfair – I can see much to admire and enjoy in the book, but in the end it just didn’t quite work for me. There’s no doubt that some of the jokes are quite clever and it did make me laugh a few times. So I’ll end the review on a more appreciative note with one of those bits…

“Why, did you know that if a beaver two feet long with a tail a foot and a half long can build a dam twelve feet high and six feet wide in two days, all you would need to build the Kariba Dam is a beaver sixty-eight feet long with a fifty-one foot tail?”

“Where would you find a beaver as big as that?” grumbled the Humbug…

“I’m sure I don’t know,” he replied, “but if you did, you’d certainly know what to do with him.”

Thanks to all of you who voted to add this book to my TBR – I’m sorry to be so unenthusiastic about it. Better luck next time!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

39 thoughts on “The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

  1. Yes, I agree–Milo being a little pain in the neck. IMHO, Jules Feiffer’s illustrations save
    the day in this book, with some helpful clever cliches by Juster. (But I DO remember the
    car that “went without saying”.)


    • Yes, there were some good lines in it, and the illustrations are fun. But overall it just didn’t have the sparkle I was expecting… I never did take well to being preached at.


  2. I was thinking of getting this book for my nephew, who sounds very similar to Milo! Not sure how well the ‘preach-y’ bits would go down, though – kids hate being preached to. Thanks for this!


  3. Hahaha! I love how you slightly ripioed it. Well done. The professor’s favorite part is when you list all the dadblamery of being incorrect. I admit, those guys were annoying. FEF is not a fantasy person!

    And you know, Rhyme and Reason always scared me, too. I mean, look at the picture for instance. The demons were always attractive though.


    • Thanks, C-W-W! I tried to restrain the rip a bit – so many people seem to love it. I’m not a fantasy person, ’tis true – but I honestly didn’t feel this was particularly good fantasy anyway, and some bits of it were pretty badly written.

      Yep, as heroines go R&R were not the best! Personally I could quite understand why they’d been banished before they bored everyone to death…


  4. Good review, FF. Does Alice in Wonderland annoy you excessively? Both written by British writers. Juster was an engineer – which could explain a lot. A lot of adults think that children must understand the cautionary stories. I’m sorry you suffered so for your trouble. Spark Notes noted: “Juster never wrote another book, but The Phantom Tollbooth has never gone out of print and remains a favorite among readers of all ages.”


    • I’m not a huge fan of Alice, but I honeslty don’t feel the two compare at all. Alice is so much better written and far more imaginative – and it hides its preaching so much better. I guess that’s why so many images from Alice have passed into common currency – the mad-hatter, the white rabbit, the cheshire cat etc etc – whereas I didn’t recognise any images from The Phantom Tollbooth. It had been mentioned that the two books have been compared but I really think that’s an injustice to Alice.

      I’m surprised to hear the he’s a Brit – the book seems to be far, far more popular and better known in the US, and this edition certainly had US spelling and felt quite American to me. (Actually, just Wiki’d him – and they claim he’s American and did write other books – odd!)


  5. Well it’s jolly brave to submit to the results of the people’s referendum. Mind you, as you do the choosing of the options…….

    At least it wasn’t (I assume) an 800 page book you were a-hating


    • Yes, I take most of the blame – I really thought i’d enjoy this one much more than I did. As you say, though, at least it was fairly short! (I took much more care with this week’s selections though… 😉 )


  6. FictionFan – Sorry to hear you were disappointed in this one, although as always, I really appreciate your candor. As I was reading your post, I was thinking about how often books directed at young people have been preachy and condescending. Little wonder Not, to me, an effective way to go about getting young people to read more…


    • No, indeed! I feel that when you’re spending maybe 8 hours a day at school or on homework, you deserve a bit of a break in your leisure time. All the best kids’ books teach something, of course, but they have to do it subtly so that the message is hidden within the pleasure. But then, most people do seem to love this one…


  7. Aha! I knew there was a reason why my son and I hadn’t gotten past the first couple of chapters before picking up several alternatives. 😀 I’m thinking my son doesn’t need anyone besides me and his teachers preaching at him. Perhaps we’ll put this one in the donate to library books sale pile.


    • Well, I must say that’s how I feel! Kids spend so much time being educated that, even more than adults, they surely deserve a bit of fun in their leisure time. But…loads of people seem to love it…


  8. Another great review! I haven’t read this one and I don’t remember it in the hands of either of my offspring who like their mother take exception to the preaching. I remember well the year my brother was given Richard Scary’ s Please and Thank You book fir Christmas; no subtlety on the part of the giver at all!!! I’m sure you’ll have a much better choice from the last poll.


    • Thanks, Cleo! I had never heard of this till I saw the review that got it onto the poll, and was surprised when it turned out it was huge, mainly in America. Yep, if preaching must be done, it should be done subtly at least! Haha! Please and Thank You sounds like a real fun read… 😉


  9. Some books, I think, you really have to catch at the right moment in life. I still love this one and in fact just recently re-read it on a sick day. But much of my love comes from a nostalgia factor of my grade five teacher reading it aloud.


    • Yes, I think you’re right. I’m often hesitant to read a book I loved in childhood in case my adult mind gets too critical. But then I’ve had comments and seen reviews from plenty of people who came to this one for the first time as adults who still loved it. As always, it mainly comes down to personal preference in the end…


  10. I haven’t read this book in years but do remember enjoying it as a child. That being said, I adored this review for its honesty. If you really struggled and suffered through a book, it can be an enormous relief to say so! I find I am often too nice in my reviews. Is it awful to say that I’m trying to remedy that? 😉


    • Thanks! 🙂 I’ve always felt there’s no point in reviewing if I’m not willing to say when I don’t like something. But I find it much easier if a book is a classic or a huge success than if it’s by an author just starting out – then I’m much more likely to take the easy option and just not review it at all if I can’t be positive.


    • Oh dear! I still feel guilty for not liking it though! You’re right about the stars, but the extra one was just a sad attempt to ingratiate myself with all the people who think this is a great book…did it work?


        • Ah, but honesty can be over-rated. Sometimes a judicious little white lie can make the world a pleasanter place…

          Edit: OMG! I’ve just realised this comment makes me sound just like the awful Rhyme and Reason! Shoot me, please!!


            • 😀

              No, there’s a time and place for honesty – but also for dishonesty, so long as it’s for good-hearted reasons. As you will find, when you tell some sweet-looking woman that her dress makes her look fat…


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