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Top 100 Children’s Novels #21: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

#21 The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)
80 points

It was the very first time that I couldn’t put a book down. I was pretty young, and I read it all in one sitting — I was shocked at myself afterward. Those puns! That wordplay! It meant there were other people in the world with brains that worked like mine. – Aaron Zenz

I do love my wit and puns, so another natural. I can still quote parts of this, and revisit it when I can. – Kyle Wheeler

Funny, punny and filled with adventure. Most kids see a bit of themselves in Milo… for better or worse. – Stacy Dillon

It’s not often that Jules Feiffer’s illustrations take a distinct back seat to the text of the book he’s drawing for, but this is most definitely one of those times. – Hotspur Closser

This was the most shocking change from the last time I conducted this poll (thus far). The Phantom T (as Schmidt on The New Girl calls it) was in the top ten last time around (coming it at #10). We’ve recently seen its 50th anniversary celebration, with a lovely new annotated edition out there for one and all to see. So why the seemingly strange drop in popularity? The funny thing is that it actually showed up on a massive number of people’s lists. Yet only two people named it their number one favorite with most making it #9 or #10. That’s the way this poll works, folks. It seems that while most people enjoy Juster’s classic, few were willing to give it the attention it deserved. And so here we are with a book that has dropped eleven places, but keeps hanging on.

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.

Forty-nine years later (just let that sink in a bit) Entertainment Weekly announced that, “Author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer are collaborating on The Odious Ogre, which is set for a fall 2010 release.”  As editor Michael di Capua 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’.”  It came out in 2011 in tandem with Tollbooth’s 50th anniversary.

  • 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:

Here was a video made for the 50th anniversary:

And 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. “I love The Phantom Tollbooth!”
    “Of course you do; you’re a HUMAN BEING.”

  2. Ah! I purchased The Phantom Tollbooth with birthday money the year I must have been either 9 or 10. I got THIRTY DOLLARS from my parents. I bought ALL the Black Stallion books they had that I hadn’t read — at $2.95 each! (Hardcover, no less.) Also Man o’ War, by Walter Farley, which was the exception and was $3.95. And I had enough money left to purchase The Phantom Tollbooth (in paperback)! I don’t think I had read it yet, but purchased it on my friend Kathy’s strong recommendation. She’s still my good friend, and I still love this book. For someone who’s always loved puns, this book was rich, even though I didn’t get most of the puns when I first read it. I got enough of them to love the book and the adventure.

    Side note: It was a terrible thing when the price of books skyrocketed. Sigh. I actually kept a chart where I kept track of my money and how many Black Stallion books I could buy, back in the day. Nickel and diming my way to $2.95, it still wasn’t out of reach.

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