The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

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Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The book has two settings. The story begins in the real world, in a large modem city much like New York or Chicago, where Milo lives on the eighth floor of an apartment building. He walks home from school along busy streets, past a vast array of buildings and shops, but nothing ever interests him enough to cause him to look up from the pavement. Although his room at home is filled with toys and games, he does not enjoy playing with any of them. One day he arrives home from school and discovers a huge package sitting in the center of his room. Inside is a turnpike tollbooth, just the right size to go with his small electric automobile. Having nothing better to do, he assembles the tollbooth, gets into his car, and drives up to it.

Suddenly, without any warning, Milo finds himself driving down a country highway in the Kingdom of Wisdom, a magical land where the unexpected can and does happen at any time. The Kingdom contains two great cities, Dictionopolis, ruled by King Azaz the Unabridged, and Digitopolis, where Azaz's brother, the Mathemagician, is king. Between these two outposts of civilization, the Old City of Wisdom, the original outpost, lies in ruins, although settlements of people may be found in the Forest of Sight and the Valley of Sound. On the frontier of the kingdom are the Mountains of Ignorance, and demons dwell there, waiting for their chance to overrun the land.

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Phantom Tollbooth is written in a warm and conversational style, and Juster often steps out from behind the scene to directly address the reader. When Milo drives through the tollbooth and into the lands beyond, for example, he thinks, "What a strange thing to have happen," and the author adds "(Just as you must be thinking right now)." This style is one of the great strengths of the book. Its simplicity and the level of its diction make it easy to read, although Juster occasionally challenges readers with a difficult word that may send them scurrying for the dictionary.

The book can be read as a simple adventure story, a fantastic tale of a young boy who enters a magical land, undertakes a dangerous quest, and succeeds. However, there are other things in the book that may be enjoyed in addition to the story. Juster includes a number of puns and plays on words in his names and places, and these puns will sometimes only be funny to readers with a large vocabulary or an extensive reading background.

The illustrations by renowned cartoonist Jules Feiffer are a fortunate addition to the story, and their whimsical depictions of the characters fit perfectly with the text descriptions. Feiffer's pictures help the reader visualize some of the more difficult concepts and descriptions, such as what Tock or the awful DYNNE (who is described as a "thick bluish smog") might look like.

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Juster's book addresses a current problem in society: children and young adults who simply do not want to learn. It is one thing for adults to lecture them on the importance of getting an education; but these speeches often leave no impression. The Phantom Tollbooth reinforces the importance of learning in a humorous and entertaining fashion. The book has other virtues: it is neither sexist nor racist. The most enlightened characters in the book are female,...

(The entire section is 826 words.)