Flashback Friday: The Phantom Tollbooth

Amanda McHugh ‘18/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer and Publisher

A unique feature of books is how timeless they are. However, books from the past can sometimes take on new meanings in re-reading than when it was first read. This is especially true for middle grade books, such as The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster.

Photo Credit: http://theroarbots.com/
Photo Credit: http://theroarbots.com/

The Phantom Tollbooth was published in 1961 by Random House. It’s considered a fantasy novel intended for middle grade kids, ages eight to twelve. The story follows a young boy, Milo, who is bored and uninterested by life. He then receives a mysterious tollbooth, which transports him to the Kingdom of Wisdom. In this magical land, he meets characters from King Azaz of Dictionoloplis, who teaches him the importance of words, to Chroma, the conductor of color who orchestrates all the colors of day and night. His heroic moment comes when he rescues Princesses Rhyme and Reason in the Castle in the Air by battling the demons in the Mountain of Ignorance. These demons include the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, who never lets people finish sentences, Terrible Trivium, who distracts people with worthless, petty tasks, and other demons who represent ignorant aspects of life. Milo must use his utmost wit to out smart the Ignorant demons to battle his way to the princesses.

Juster first set off to write this book to help children’s perception of the world, and have them notice and appreciate what’s around them. He was later inspired by a young boy in his neighborhood who asked him “What is the biggest number there is?” Originally going to turn this idea into a short story, he includes this scene in The Phantom Tollbooth when Milo asks the Mathmagician the same question. His answer, and the Mathmagician’s answers, is the same; Think of the highest number you can, and add one to it. Then add another one. And just keep adding one until you get to the highest number. This question brings up the concept of infinity to kids in a clear-cut, simple way.

Many other common euphemisms are presented throughout the book, one after the other. Reading the book as a child, most kids may not catch onto all of these. This is like when Milo goes to a banquet where they eat actual words, and King Azaz talks to Milo about “half bakeries.” Half bakeries come from “half baked ideas.” These are words that are common, overused phrases in history, such as “the earth is flat,” and “everything happens for the best.” These sugary, sweet words taste great, but eating too many of them can make someone sick. This correlates with the real world that saying the same phrases too often with no real thought in them can be good in moderation, but tasteless after a while. However, many kids reading this book may not know these phrases are as overused as they are. So re-reading as an adult and catching these subtle things is humorous. With that said, after a while of reading puns after puns, it becomes tiring. Every page has some sort of lesson that kids would be learning as they grow up. But already knowing all these things and reading them page after page isn’t as fun.

The Phantom Tollbooth is a book that is meant for middle grade kids. Following Milo on his whimsical adventures is exciting to read as he travels through the Kingdom, absorbing his surroundings and taking it all in. Of course anyone can read it and should, for the concepts presented in the book are important things everyone should know, but be warned; Reading constant life lesson after lesson grows tedious over two hundred pages.


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