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Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Top 100 Children’s Novels (#10)

#10 The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)

(#1)(#1)(#1)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2) (#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(#4) (#4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5) (#5)(#5)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#7) (#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7) (#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#9) (#9)(#10)(#10)(#10)(#10)(#10) – 291 points

I’d like to know how many kids developed a full-fledged love of wordplay from this book. There’s something that makes you feel so smart and clever when reading about jumping to Confusions, literally eating your own words, and sparring wits with the Spelling Bee and Canby. And you gotta love the Watchdog.– Brooke Shirts (Casa Camisas)

I think this book inspired my love of puns and wordplay, not to mention math and word games. It brought to earth large concepts like Boredom and Truth. – Maggi Idzikowski,Media Specialist, Allen Elementary School, Ann Arbor MI

I stole this one off my brother’s bookshelf and never gave it back. Oh how I wanted one of those tollbooths! As a lover of words and numbers I was thrilled with every new character and adventure Milo encountered. – Dr. Patricia M. Stohr-Hunt, Chair, Education Department, University of Richmond

Thank you Mrs Bounds for reading this to us in fourth grade! The wordplay is great, and when I realized I knew enough to get the jokes about the cart that “goes without saying,” or “jumping to conclusions,” well, didn’t *I* feel smart and in the know. But what really resonated with me then, and still does, is the revelation that Milo could only rescue the princesses because he didn’t know it was an impossible task. – Melissa Depper, Youth Services Librarian, Arapahoe Library District CO

This book is very close to what it is like inside my head. I realize that might be unnerving. – Katie Fee, Associate Marketing Manager, Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Walker Books for Young Readers

The Phantom Tollbooth was my favorite book as a kid, and still is. I must have read it twenty times before I was a teenager. I read it again in my late twenties and loved it. But until I read it a couple of years ago to my then-six year old, I had no idea what the book was really about! As a child I loved the wordplay, the brilliant illustrations, the vivid characters, and set pieces like the house with four doors and the task of moving a mountain of sand grain by grain. I must have adored it because it’s never left my number one spot. My most recent reading revealed that the book’s deepest profundity is its identification of the perils of boredom, red tape, bickering and hair-splitting. In short, this is a book with themes no kid could possibly understand! It might as well be by Cheever or Bellow. So how come it’s the greatest children’s novel ever? – Dan Levy

A nerdgasm of wordplay and punnery!– (Dreadful Penny)

And to think.  Some of you actually forgot this old favorite.  Looking through the Top 10 predictions, a mere nine people correctly predicted that it would end up #10 on this list.  A pity since it’s a beauty, no question.  One of my husband’s favorite books growing up.  And now with a new Juster/Feiffer collaboration on the horizon . . . but I get ahead of myself.

The synopsis from the publisher reads, "For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a mysterious tollbooth appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and goes up against the dastardly Discord and Dynne. By the time Milo and Tock set off toward the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the twin Princesses Rhyme and Reason, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams…"

Let us play that old game of how-it-came-to-be.  The skinny comes via 100 Best Books for Children by Anita Silvey.  According to her, "An architect who wrote for relaxation from arduous planning projects, Norton Juster had received a grant from the Ford Foundation to create a book for children about how people experience cities.  In 1959, to avoid writing this book, he began working on a short story – one that took on a life of its own.  Juster viewed The Phantom Tollbooth as a way to procrastinate from his real responsibilities."  Turns out, he was buds with Jules Feiffer who hadn’t really done much with children’s literature at that point.  As a recent Publishers Weekly article put it, "Fifty years ago, Norton Juster was pacing his second-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights, unsure that the manuscript he was working on—his first—would ever be published, much less become a classic of children’s literature. His roommate was his first reader, who also voluntarily sketched some pictures to go with Juster’s story.  The roommate was Jules Feiffer. The manuscript was The Phantom Tollbooth."

The book has since gone on to sell 3.3 million copies.

In terms of the sheer number of puns in this book, Juster once explained in an interview with Salon where they may have come from.  "My father was a punster. …  he’d say something and I’d groan. There’s no way you can deal with that as a child. You’re not that facile or quick. Years later I got to appreciate it. He’d sometimes walk in a room and say, ‘Ah ha! I see you’re coming early since lately. You used to be behind before but now you’re first at last …’ "

In an interview with The Purple Crayon, Juster actually did quite a fine job of defining why the book continues to be such a rousing success.  "My wife and I were over in England, on a little trip. That you know. And I was interviewed by a childrens’ magazine called ‘Carousel,’ put out in Yorkshire. And we were chatting and he said, ‘You know what my favorite part of the book is?’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Well, this one little scene where they’re all sitting in this little wagon. And Milo says, ‘Shh, be very quiet cause it goes without saying.’ Now that’s something I’d be willing to bet that probably 90 out of a hundred kids 8, or 9, or 10-years-old are not going to get. But it doesn’t matter at all cause it gets in the way of the story. But it was something to him, and he had only read it as an adult, you see. So that is kind of nice, when that happens. You realize again, quite accidentally, I think, that there are things in there that appeal to different people at different times in their life."

Lest you think that Norton Juster’s life begins and ends with children’s literature, remember that he had a day job too.  "Trained as an architect, he spent the next 30 years drawing blueprints for schools, fire stations, and perhaps most famously, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, near Juster’s home in western Massachusetts. ‘It’s hard for people to understand you can do more than one thing well,’ he says."

Fun Fact:  Feiffer’s model for the Whether Man?  Norton Juster.

Newbery Award-wise, it won nada.  Zip.  Zero.  Zilch.  What did win in 1962? The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare got the award and Frontier Living by Edwin Tunis, The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, and Belling The Tiger by Mary Stolz got Honors.  No comment.

When at all possible I like to pair these postings with a bit of contemporary news.  In this particular case, you may or may not have heard that Juster and Feiffer are pairing up after all these years for yet another collaboration.  Yup.  Forty-nine years later (just let that sink in a bit) Entertainment Weekly announces that, "Author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer are collaborating on The Odious Ogre, which is set for a fall 2010 release."  Publishers Weekly fills in the pertinent details.  As editor Michael di Capua (yup, he’s still around too) put it, " ‘this story about the ogre is extremely witty and has a certain black humor to it,’ di Capua said. The ogre, for instance, has an impressive vocabulary, ‘due mainly to having inadvertently swallowed a large dictionary while consuming the head librarian in one of the nearby towns’."  Far be it from me to promote the indiscriminate devouring of my librarian brethren, but it sounds rather neat.  Many thanks to Carol Reid for the info.

  • And the Salon interview is here.

Library Journal
said of it at the time (amusingly), "The ironies, the subtle play on words will be completely lost on all but the most precocious children. Definitely for the sophisticated, special reader. Only the large libraries can afford to experiment with it."

The first cover is pretty much iconic, but if you scratch around a bit you can find some others here and there.

In 1970 Chuck Jones animated a version of this book. The trailer is here. Twenty points for anyone who can identify the primary voice (not the narrator) in this.

But instead of ending with that today I’m more than happy to finish with this Forensics Public Speaking Duo instead.  Those of you who did Forensics in high school (admit it . . . that’s about 34% of you, so don’t be ashamed) will take a particular pleasure in this. I know I did.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Scrumptious says

    How happy I am to see this book. It was # 6 on my list and I see I was in good company with four other people in choosing that ranking.

    It’s not a book I hear people talk about much as a “classic” or a “favorite” so while I was 100% sure from the beginning of my winnowing process that it would make my own top ten, I definitely did not expect to see it in our collective top ten – at least not until everyone started buzzing about it in the comments and predictions!

    This is one of those books that I remember much more for the feeling of it than the plot or even images and scenes. I just loved the whole grand sweep of the story, the intricacy of all the puns. I’ve always loved letters and numbers – I can get transported while doing office filing due to my personal relationships with each letter of the alphabet, and Nabokov’s descriptions of letters with colors and other sensory associations in “Speak, Memory” was dead-on for me – so having the whole realm of letters and numbers and definitions and turns of phrase brought to vibrant life felt like nothing less than an expression of the “true” world that I could perceive, but no one ever really talked about.

    I think I actually saw the movie before reading the book, at someone’s house (great, silly, lovely movie) and when I found out it was based on a book I hunted it down and read it over and over!

    Seeing The Phantom Tollbooth here makes me dream that all my other beloved books that have yet to show will still make it on to the list. I know that a few will but there are a few that I can’t imagine I’ll see. That just makes me look forward to the part where we all clamor to introduce each other to the ones that got away!

  2. Whoo hoo, I’m one for one, and it’s in the correct spot.

    I have a friend who used to teach 6th grade and swears this is the perfect book for that age. They feel so in the know when they “get it.”

    We talked about the new Juster/Feiffer at our last Kid-Lit Pie Night. Brooke, who should always be quoted, dispaired of Tollbooth showing up on the list and almost talked me into Tom Sawyer (Silly girl you should never doubt yourself, when you are in the right).

    I have only listened to the audio of this and suspect that it needs a visual experiance to do it justice. I’m pretty sure I only caught a fraction of the wordplay without the actual words in view.

    Mel Blanc

    Now I’m down to a mere 362,880 chance for getting the rest of my predictions lined up. Bring it on!

  3. rockinlibrarian says

    Katie Fee, I love you!

    And hey, maybe only nine people guessed it would be #10, but *I* guessed it would be #7! Don’t *I* get credit for not forgetting this ‘n, too?

    As I said in my prediction submission email, if I’m right about the top ten books (in any order), I’m REALLY going to enjoy the next couple weeks here. What wonderful fun books! Reading this post made me happy, and Tollbooth isn’t even one of my own top favorites!

  4. Jim (Teacherninja) says

    Aw, crap. Not the book. I love the book, but there goes my top ten list…

    It’ll be interesting to see which of my top ten picks didn’t even make the list!

  5. Tricia (Miss Rumphius) says

    This post (and ranking) alone are enough to validate the continued requirement that all my preservice teachers read it. They are reluctant at first, but by the end, most of them love it as much as I do.

    I am thrilled this made the top 10.

  6. Oh yeah. Phantom Tollbooth. Oops.

  7. lisachellman says

    I am not surprised this made the Top Ten — though I confess I was hoping it would come in lower. I love wordplay… I had a punster dad myself… but somehow I never fell in love with this book, either as a child or as an adult. But given how many of my other favorites have ranked in the top 100 (oh, 80 or so, so far…) I can hardly complain! Certainly our library copies continue to wear through every time we buy new ones.

  8. Arrggh….there goes my top 10 list too….it was on there yesterday (you know, before I emailed it!), but when I saw the Westing Game didn’t make top 10, assumed (what a FOOL!) that the top spots would lean to more recent titles.

    Still, very happy to see this get the recognition it deserves! And wondering what other surprises await!

  9. I didn’t even try to figure a top 10, since my favs were way, way back in the list. But I am so happy this is here. I <3 this book, and cannot wait to read it to my daughters!

  10. ::sigh:: It’s getting the top-10 books in the right order that’s so hard! I had this as number eight in my predictions.

    And there’s still the slight anxiety of waiting for my choices to come up… I’ve given up on five of my as-yet-to-appear choices (silly people who don’t have the same taste as I do) and the remaining two will probably be numbers one and two… but it’s still a little nerve-wracking.

  11. My Boaz's Ruth says

    I had it as number 8 too, Miriam. But most of my guesses were just WAGs. My husband is going to be VERY pleased to see this book here.

    I’d never heard of it until I married him, but he insists on holding on to his copy (same cover as the first one here) and telling me what a WONDERFUL book it is… I can’t manage to get through it 🙁 I keep trying for his sake.

    If he’d made a top 10 list, though, this could well have been at the top of it.

  12. *sigh*
    There goes my top ten list, although the only reason why this wasn’t on there was because I kept forgetting it while I was working on my top ten. I had it on my list of possible books to come up until we reached #15, but then somehow it got left behind. I’m thrilled to see it in the top ten though!

  13. Jennifer Schultz says

    Hey, nice! I thought it would be #7, but close enough for government work, right?

    (Not for the poll, unfortunately. That ship sailed several days ago.)

  14. WAGs?

    Wonderfully Awful Guesses? Wishful Amusing Gestures?

  15. Oh well…one for one, but out of order! I predicted this at #6, though it moved around a lot in my final musings. And I join the ranks of those who didn’t know this book as a child and was introduced to it by my husband. I loved it, and am looking forward to reading it with my daughter when she’s a bit older. She loves word play and puns already, so I know it will be a hit.

    Here’s hoping the rest of the top 10 will contain gems like this one!

  16. Jenn (From the Mixed-Up Files) says

    Oh nuts. I had this at the #9 spot on my guess list. Ah well. It’s still fun seeing how close (or not) my guesses fall.

  17. anonymous says

    > Wonderfully Awful Guesses? Wishful Amusing Gestures?

    Wild A** Guess

  18. RM1(SS) (ret) says

    I had it at number 7, but my list was pretty much all WAGs, too. 9)

    I read this years ago, and enjoyed it – I’m very fond of wordplay (especially Tom Swifties). Started rereading it a couple years ago, but got sidetracked and didn’t finish it. Guess I should borrow it again….

  19. Genevieve says

    The David Hyde Pierce audiobook is excellent – he does the voices and the controlled goofiness so well.

    I had it at #10, yay! Though I don’t expect the rest of my guesses to fall into the right slots (I’m moderately sure I got all the titles right – though after last year and Millions of Cats, I’m never sure – but the order is much trickier.). This was the one book I wasn’t sure of – I thought it should be on the list but expected it to be lower, and expected that Wimpy Kid would’ve gotten in on the kid vote, though again didn’t expect that to go so high. When making the prediction, my head said Wimpy Kid but my heart said Tollbooth, and I went with my heart.

  20. Darn! I had this one at #7 too. Oh well, I am just glad it made it on the list. My cool, older brother gave me his copy of the book in 1985 and I stayed up late that night to finish it. I still have that copy and can’t wait to pass it on to my kids in a few years.

  21. Mandaladreamer says

    Well, I messed up my top ten predictions just by accidentally listing one that had already appeared. But at least this one was in the right place! I’m grateful that I was a kid in the time when so many of the best books (including this one) were read aloud in the classroom. Teachers in the school where I work frequently don’t know much about good children’s lit, I’ve found. I’ve actually had teachers refuse this one because they thought it looked too weird to read aloud.

  22. Melissa ZD says

    Wow, I nailed the first one too! But I am really, really hoping I am wrong tomorrow because I don’t think I can handle the stress. 🙂 I spaced Wimpy Kid–probably because I am one of the 3.7 people who are not in love with it–and am now convinced it will be in the top 10 and one of my 9 other lovely books will be abandoned. *leaves to get a Tums*

  23. My husband thought this was a glaring omission on my top 10 list.

  24. I had seen this on the library shelf in my grade school library but left it there because “Phantom” made me think it was horror. Thank you to the otherwise annoying 4th grade teacher who read this (and two other favorites, The Black Stallion and On to Oregon) to the class. I have loved it ever since and really should have included it in my top ten.

  25. Brooke Shirts says

    YAY! DaNae is right — I never should have doubted! This is one of the books I put on my list because I truly, truly adored it as a child. And I still say that the Terrible Trivium, with his blank face and tailored suit, is one of the creepiest villains in all of children’s literature.

  26. So close! I guessed this would come in at Number 9. I actually didn’t put it on my own list, though I probably should have, since I’ve loved it since 3rd or 4th grade. My son loved it after seeing the movie and then reading it. (He was a lot younger. Maybe even Kindergarten.)

    I remember a birthday when my parents gave me $30. I bought all the Black Stallion books I didn’t have yet (Oh! The days of $2.95 hardcovers!), and — The Phantom Tollbooth. I believe I’d already read it, but wanted to have my own copy, it was so good.

  27. I swapped it out on my top ten predictions for Julie of the wolves…darnit! I dread how wrong my predictions will end up…

  28. I have 6 potential top ten lists and didn’t send any of them…Crudmonkeys! Serves me right for waiting to see if yesterdays #11 would make it easier to choose one list. I should have sent it on Sunday when I poured over them for ages (driving my husband insane with “Okay, Charlotte’s Web is definitely my people’s choice number 1, but what is people’s choice number 2…hmmmmm”). Oh well, I am now discarding the 5 lists that *didn’t* have Tollbooth at #10 and still playing along with my remaining list…

  29. Someone send me to stand in the corner! I forgot the Phantom Tollbooth! But, argghh, which one on my list to knock out of the top ten now?

  30. Mitali Perkins says

    Who was that voice in the trailer, Betsy? I did like the Indian-ish sitar music playing when the movie moved to animation.

  31. I like the Mel Blanc theory. But honestly, I don’t know. I was hoping you folks might.

  32. the book is dated – was clever for the time but still dated

  33. Argh! I’m glad I forgot to send in my Top Ten predictions because I would have been wrong from the beginning. I completely overlooked this. I’m not sure I would have placed it so high, but it is nice to see.

  34. Hans Conried? Of “Horton Hears a Who” fame?

  35. Otherwise known as my one true love? Perhaps.

  36. Yay! That public speaking duo is fantastic.


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