Book Review of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

What My Kids Read: Book Review of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster The Phantom Tollbooth is one of Liam’s favorite books. It is full of puns and wordplay, which is right up his alley. He first read it when he was 8 years old, and, although he has always been an advance reader, I would say that this book is great for ages 8 and up. I think it would be a great book to read out loud. In fact, I am hoping to read it to the children this winter, since I think Paul (who is 7 1/2) will really enjoy the puns, and it is full of some great, obvious truths that I would love to talk about with the boys.

Parents should be aware that The Phantom Tollbooth is a modern fairy tale, so there are magical things, but magic is not the focus of the story. Also, the entire book is full of puns. The main character gets stuck in the Doldrums, he accidentally jumps to Conclusions, etc. The book is much more enjoyable if your child has a grasp of most figures of speech.

The message of this book is that life is interesting and beautiful, but you have to look around to notice it.

My Mom-Meter gives The Phantom Tollbooth an overall safety rating of 1 (Safe) for ages 8 and up.

 

Click here to skip to a Plot summary

Click here to skip straight to Potential Discussion Points

Category ratings (click on the category to see specifics):

Alcohol/DrugsSafe - no actual four-letter words

BullyingSafe - no actual four-letter words

Disrespectful AttitudesSafe - no actual four-letter words

Gambling:Safe - no actual four-letter words

Gross BehaviorSafe - not much gross behavior

LanguageSafe - no actual four-letter words

Magic/SupernaturalModerately Safe - mentioned, but not glorified

Romance/SexSafe - no actual four-letter words

Scary ThemesModerately Safe - mentioned, but not glorified

ViolenceSafe - no actual four-letter words

Plot summary of The Phantom Tollbooth: ***Contains Spoilers***

Wikipedia has a plot summary here.

Potential Discussion Points for Parents in The Phantom Tollbooth:

  • Milo “regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.” Do you ever feel that way? Why?
  • The Whether Man says “Some people never go beyond Expectations…” What are expectations? Why are they important? Why should we go beyond expectations?
  • “People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.” What are the doldrums? When do you usually feel down in the doldrums? How do you make yourself feel better?
  • The king of Wisdom had two sons who thought that their own interests were more important than Wisdom. One son devoted himself to words and built a city for them. The other son devoted himself to numbers and built a city for them. The brothers both were convinced that their interests were the most important, and Wisdom was in danger of being lost. Do you think that words or numbers are more important than wisdom? Why is wisdom more important? Do you ever make choices that value other things more than wisdom?
  • Milo decides to conduct a sunrise without permission. It gets out of control, and he doesn’t tell anyone that he lost a whole week. Milo made a bad choice, didn’t he? What happens when we decide to do things outside of permission?
  • Milo says “[F]rom now on, I’m going to have a very good reason before I make up my mind about anything. You can lose too much time jumping to Conclusions.” What does it mean to “jump to conclusions?” Why is it a bad idea to do it?
  • The Terrible Trivium tells Milo “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing…” This is a really important truth. What is it that you really should be doing? Is it easier to do other things sometimes?
  • Princess Reason tells Milo “You must never feel badly about making mistakes as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.” Princess Rhyme adds “[I]t’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.” Reason explains that everything we learn builds on what we have learned, and it affects what we learn in the future. Do you think that it’s bad to make mistakes? How do you think we learn from mistakes? What do you think about what Reason said about being wrong for the right reasons? When we are right for the wrong reasons, we often don’t realize that our reasons were wrong. Why do you think learning is important?
  • In the end, Milo says “I never could have done it without everyone’s help.” King Azaz says “That may be true, but you had the courage to try; and what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do.” Do you think that sometimes obeying isn’t simply about what you can do, as it is about what you will do?
  • Milo learns at last that his quest had been impossible. King Azaz and the Mathmagician tells him “[S)o many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” Do you ever give up because you think something is impossible and then find out that it was possible if you would only try?
  • At the beginning of the book, it says, “Wherever [Milo] was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he had bothered.” After the Tollbooth disappear, Milo notices how wonderful the world is all around him. Do you ever feel like Milo, that nothing is very interesting or worth learning? Do you believe that now? If not, what changed your mind?

Alcohol/Drugs:

Bullying:

Disrespectful Attitudes: 

  • The king of Wisdom had two sons who thought that their own interests were more important than Wisdom. One son devoted himself to words and built a city for them. The other son devoted himself to numbers and built a city for them. The brothers both were convinced that their interests were the most important, and Wisdom was in danger of being lost.

Gambling:

Gross Behavior:

Language:

  • The Humbug says “Balderdash!”
  • The Spelling Bee calls the Humbug an “old fraud.”
  • Someone says “Bosh!”
  • “Stupid” is used once.
  • The Mathmagician calls his brother a “stubborn wretch.”
  • Definition: “Gay” is used as happy and cheerful.

Magic/Supernatural:

  • A tollbooth appears and Milo puts it together, gets in his car to play, and finds himself driving in a strange country.
  • There is a witch mentioned, but she is actually a Which. Her name is Faintly Macabre, and she controlled the words used in the kingdom (“which” ones would be used).
  • Demons, monsters, and giants all had to be driven back when the kingdom of Wisdom was established.
  • “Black-hearted demons” guard the Castle in the Air, where the Princesses Rhyme and Reason are held captive.
  • The “Mathmagician” is the ruler of Digitopolis. He carries a “magic staff,” which is a big pencil. He gives Milo his own “magic staff,” a small pencil.
  • The DYNNE (and “awful din”) is a genie that collects unpleasant sounds.
  • Milo is given a telescope that helps him see things as they really are.
  • The “Terrible Trivium” is a “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”
  • The Demon of Insincerity described himself as a “long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bellied, short-armed, bowlegged, big-footed monster.”
  • Milo and his companions are captured by the Gelatinous Giant, and only escape because the giant is afraid of new ideas (Milo has lots in a box from King Azaz).
  • There are a bunch of demons described at the end. They are all figures of speech, like “Dilemma” who is waiting to catch someone on his horns.

Romance/Sex:

Scary Themes:

  • The Demon of Insincerity described himself as a “long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bellied, short-armed, bowlegged, big-footed monster.” (he isn’t)
  • Milo and his companions are captured by the Gelatinous Giant, and only escape because the giant is afraid of new ideas (Milo has lots in a box from King Azaz).
  • The demons come out of caves and cracks in the Mountain of Ignorance to destroy Milo and his companions. They are always close to catching the friends, but Milo and company manage to escape in the nick of time, and all of the people Milo has met on his journey come together to drive back the monsters.
  • There are a bunch of demons described chasing the friends. and that part might be scary for young ones. They are all figures of speech, like “Horrible Hopping Hindsight” and “Gross Exaggeration.”

Violence:

  • There are two different times when it is said that the demons are driven back in battles. The battles are not really described.

 

From a ten-year-old’s perspective: “This is one of my favorite books because it is very lighthearted and witty with a serious message. Kids that like books by Roald Dahl would probably enjoy this book.”


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The Phantom Tollbooth
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Comments

  1. My favorite book! So good.

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