Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, March 30, 2023


 The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster (1961)

The classic juvenile fantasy, made even better (as if that were possible) by illustrations from Jules Feiffer:

Milo was a boy who "didn't know what to do with himself -- not just sometimes, but always."  Wishy-washy?  Perhaps.  No matter what he was doing or where he was, he always wanted to be doing comething else or being somewhere else.  And when he got there?... Well, you get the idea.

Coming home from school one afternoon, there was a huge crate waiting from him.  There was no indication where the box came from, or who sent it.  Attached to side of the box was a note:  "FOR MILO, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME."  An envelope revealed that the box contained one genuine turnpike tollbooth with easy-to-assemble instructions and a book of rules and traffic regulations.

Milo assembled the tollbooth, which also came with a few coins to be inserted into it.  Milo got into his toy car and inserted a coin into the tollbooth slot.  He suddenly found himself on a country highway, with neither the tollbooth or his room (or even his apartment building) in sight.  The strange map he had been given listed many places -- none of which he had heard of -- so he decided to go to one that sounded interesting, Dictionopolis.  The first stop along the way was the Land of Expectations, where he met the Whether Man, who explained that whether one went this way or whether one went that way, one would always end up somewhere;  if the road split in many directions, all pointing to Dictionopolis, it didn't matter whether you took this road or whether you took that road.

Milo's car seemed almost to drive itself and Milo soon stopped paying attention to where he was going.  Alas, this inattention led him to a gray, bleak land known as the Doldrums, where his car stopped moving and where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.  There he met Tock, a large dog with a clock for a body -- a watchdog.  When Tock asked him how he had come to the Doldrums, Milo said that he probably was just not thinking.  Exactly, replied Tock, and to get out of the Doldrums, you must start thinking.  Tock jumped into the car beside Milo, and Milo began thinking.  "He thought of birds that swim and fish that fly.  He thought of yesterday's lunch and tomorrow's dinner.  He thought of words that began with J and numbers that end in 3.  And, as he thought, the wheels began to turn."  Soon Milo and Tock were on their way to Dictionopolis.

The main theme of the book is the impotance of learning how to think.

Once upon a time the land was empty.  Then a prince sailed across the Sea of Knowledge and founded the kingdom of Wisdom.  As the kingdom grew and grew, the prince, now a King, had two sons who  went off and founded two large cities.  Azaz the Unabridged went South the the Foothills of Confusion and built Dictionopolis, the city of words.  His brother, the Mathemagician, went north to the Mountains of Ignorance and bult Digitopolis, the city of numbers.  The two brothers were jealous of one another and fought constantly.  The King, ignorant of this, was happy with both his sons, he had one regret: he did not have a daughter.  One day, on a walk, he discovered a basket containing two baby girls.  Overjoyed, he adopted the girls, naming them Rhyme and Reason.  When  the King finally died, Azaz and the Mathemagician provided for the girls, who had the ability to settle arguments fairly and reasonably.  Eventually the two brotherly kings had a terrible quarrel over which was more important, words or numbers.  Rhyme and Reason carefully listened to both arguments and decided that words and numbers were equally important.  Each of the brothers were angry that the quarrel had not been settled in their favor and they banished Rhyme and Reason from the kingdom.  Since that time, things got much worse, because Wisdom without Rhyme nor Reason is just not workable.

Somehow, Milo and Tock -- along with a boisterous insect known as the Humbug -- were charged with going to the Castle in the Air to rescue Rhyme and Reason.  To do so, they had to journey across many strange lands, including the Island of Conclusions (which you reached by jumping) and the dreaded Mountains of Ignorance (with its many demons -- including a demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, and a Senses Taker)...

As with any classic juvenile story, The Phantom Tollbotth is a roadmap to adulthood, where the journey and not the destination, is the purpose.  And, as with any classic juvenile story, it is aimed at adults as much as it is with children.  The book is laden with puns, paradoxes, and logical impossibilities -- so much so that I wondered at times if much of the book was beyond the reach of its young readers.  Then I realized (silly me!) that was a foolish thought, since kids are often much smarter than adults.

In 1996, Maurice Sendak wrote an appreciation of the book that rings even truer today than it did 27 years ago:  The Phantom Tollbooth is "prophetic and scarily pertinent to late-nineties urban living.  The book treats, in fantastical terms, the dread problems of excessive specialization, lack of communication, conformity, cupidity, and all the alarming ills of our time.  Things have gone from bad to worse to ugly.  The dumbing down of America is proceding apace.  Juster's allegorical monsters have become all too real.  The Demons of Ignorance, the Gross Exageration (whose wicked teeth were made 'only to mangle the truth'), and the shabby Threadbare Excuse are inside the walls of the Kingdom of Wisdom, while the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, the Overbearing Know-It-All, and most especially the Triple Demons of Compromise are already established in high office all over the world.  The fair princesses, Rhyme and Reason, have obviously been banished yet again.  We need Milo!"

Indeed we do.


  1. Diane used to read THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH to her classes and they loved it. But, with EASY PASS today, many kids have no idea what a toll booth is!

  2. When my son was much younger, we watched the animated version of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. I don't remember ever reading the book, although, looking back, that surprises me... so maybe we did. I should definitely read the book now, after your review.

  3. Definitely preferred book to film.

    Nice piece by Edward Sorel on Pfeiffer: