We are amazed at how often we return to The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster’s classic kid’s book that is celebrating 50 years of stunning popularity. It’s the story of Milo, a bored ten-year-old who comes home to find a large toy tollbooth sitting in his room. In his rarely-used kid’s-size car, he embarks on a surprising journey through a mysterious landscape, beyond Expectations through Mountains of Ignorance, The Forest of Sight, Illusions, Reality and Dictionopolis to the Sea of Knowledge. Rich with strange, true wisdom, it’s way more than a kid’s book. Our ancient copy is dappled with post-its marking many bits of brilliance that curiously resonates with ‘the improvised life’, like this from the gateman of Dictionopolis addressing Milo as he tries to enter the city:

“You can’t get in without a reason.” He thought for a moment and then continued. “Wait a minute; maybe I have an old one you can use.”

He took a battered suitcase from the gatehouse and began to rummage busily through it, mumbling to himself, “No…no…no…this won’t do…no…h-m-m-m…ah, this is fine,” he cried triumphantly, holding up a small medallion on a chain. He dusted it off, and engraved on one side were the words “WHY NOT?”

That’s a good reason for almost anything — a bit used perhaps, but still quit serviceable.” and with that he placed it around Milo’s neck, pushed back the heavy iron gate, bowed low, and motioned them into the city.

phantom tollboth map

And later:

“How can you see something that isn’t there?” yawned the Humbug, who wasn’t fully awake yet.

“Sometimes it’s much simpler than seeing things that are,” [Alec] said. “For instance, if something is there, you can only see it with you eyes open, but if it isn’t there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed. That’s why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones.”


How Norton Juster came to write The Phantom Tollbooth and collaborate with Jules Feiffer is a sweet and unexpected story in itself. (Video link here.)

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6 replies on “the enduring wisdom of ‘the phantom tollboth’

  1. My daughter and I are in the last couple chapters. I hadn’t read it since I was a kid (when I obsessed over it) and it is capturing my imagination every bit as much as it did when I was a kid. And my daughter, who is a whole lot less book-centric than I was at that age, can’t wait to hear another chapter, “just a little more, Mama!”

  2. I discovered “Tollbooth” when I took a children’s literature course in college–I had very few books as a child. Ever since then I, too, have obsessed over it. It and “The Scroobious Pip” by Edward Lear/Ogden Nash vie for a tie as favorite books. They are both about imagination. If you’re not familiar with it, you have to find it somewhere–it’s out of print. I mistakenly got rid of it some years ago and recently got another copy. It is soooo creative.

  3. Thanks for the tip comrade. As always your blog piques my interest & leads me somewhere else – I will hunt it down.

    But why do use “post-It” notes.
    Why not just write in the margins?
    Why not leave a more enduring mark!
    I always feel like it’s a small win when I buy a 2nd hand book and find a previous readers comments, scribbled throughout it.
    It’s a gift in itself, being privvy to the thoughts of a past owner.

  4. Wow , i can’t believe you mention this . I bought this book again when it got lost (which is a whole story in itself ); not just because i studied linguistics : )
    and , for some reason, have this quote in my notebook : “But what about the castle in the air? .. Let it drift away – And a good riddance for no matter how beauitful it seems, it’s nothing but a prison. ”

    These days i find a lot of my favorite things in my favorite blogs .

    Leaving the mountains of ignorance behind and hoping to not be jumping to conclusions ,


  5. PS . Remembered another interview and had to find that quote for you :
    ” (..) My influences were my father, who loved to play with words, and the Marx Brothers. My father was the kind of person who would greet you by saying, “I see you’re coming early lately. You used to be behind before but now you’re first at last.” And the Marx Brothers, well, enough said. ”
    (Norton Juster on powells.com )

    pps . sometimes when i read my posts i wish i had finished my studies ..
    Well, it is an ongoing quest : )

  6. My very favorite childhood book which I kept.
    When I read this I looked up at my book shelf for my dog eared copy, and realized it must be in a box tucked away in my storage space.
    I am going to get it out today and re read it.

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