Book Blog -- THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster

Katherine Longshore 4 Tuesday, May 03, 2011
At writing conferences, the keynote speakers are like rock stars.  They are greeted with thunderous applause.  They attract crowds.  People fawn.  Or is that just me?  (I once thoroughly embarrassed myself by begging to shake Bruce Coville’s hand in an elevator.  I may have drooled.)

This year’s 40th Anniversary of the SCBWI Summer Conference will host a surplus of rock stars.  Laurie Halse Anderson, as Donna mentioned yesterday.  John Green.  Libba Bray.  (excuse me, I'm drooling again).

But despite the fact that I now write for young adults and revere these authors with fangirlish lunacy, I am equally enthralled to have the opportunity to hear the author of one of my favorite books of all time.

My fifth grade teacher started reading THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH out loud to us after lunch on a Thursday.  Friday, after school, I emptied my piggy bank and walked down to the local independent bookstore to buy my own copy.  And read it.  Twice.  Before school resumed on Monday.

Norton Juster tells the story of Milo, a boy bored with school, with his toys, with his life.  He “regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.”  Lucky for Milo (and generations of readers), a mysterious box arrives in Milo’s room.  And inside is a tollbooth that allows Milo into a land of adventure, every aspect of which delights in the acquisition of knowledge.  If only the inhabitants could admit that all forms of knowledge are equally important.  And that becomes Milo’s quest – to reconcile the monarch of words with the wizard of numbers.  Along the way, he befriends a Watchdog named Tock, a Humbug, and a Spelling Bee.  He visits the Island of Conclusions (which he jumps to unwittingly) and the Point of View (where he gets some perspective), watches a symphony paint the sunset and brings sound back to a silent valley.

I love Juster’s story and his memorable, multi-dimensional characters.  But what I love most about THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH are the words.  Juster plays with them, with their meaning, with familiar phrases and concepts.  And he introduces new words that have stuck with me for many years.  Do you know what a dodecahedron is?  I do.  Solely because of this book.

So rather than gush on (at the risk of a little drool), I will leave you with a taste of Juster’s work, and hope that it delights you as much as it does me. 

Milo is introduced to King Azaz the Unabridged, ruler of Dictionopolis, and invited to a huge banquet at the palace. 

“If you please,” said Milo, “my name is Milo and this is Tock.  Thank you very much for inviting us to your banquet, and I think your palace is beautiful.”
            “Exquisite,” corrected the duke.
            “Lovely,” counseled the minister.
            “Handsome,” recommended the count.
            “Pretty” hinted the earl.
            “Charming” submitted the undersecretary.
            “SILENCE,” suggested the king. “Now, young man, what can you do to entertain us? Sing songs?  Tell stories?  Compose sonnets?  Juggle plates?  Do tumbling tricks?  Which is it?”
            “I can’t do any of those things,” admitted Milo.
            “What an ordinary little boy,” commented the king. “Why, my cabinet members can do all sorts of things.  The duke her can make mountains out of molehills.  The minister splits hairs.  The count makes hay while the sun shines.  The earl leaves no stone unturned.  And the undersecretary, “he finished ominously, “hangs by a thread.  Can’t you do anything at all?”

And remember, if you need any help with your words, there is still time to enter our Prep Your Pages contest!  Comment on or tweet any post this week and you will be entered to get ten pages of your WIP critiqued by one (or all) of the YA Muses.


Yes! I'm due for a re-read. It's been years. Remember Chuck Jone's adaptation of "The Dot And The Line"? I'm not a CJ fan, but that short always stuck with me...

This has been on my nightstand for a re-read for MONTHS. I think you've inspired me to pick it up when I get home tonight.

Hooray! I don't think you'll be disappointed, Richelle -- and Feiffer's illustrations are delightful. And yes, PB, I remember The Dot and the Line! Though I never saw the Chuck Jones short -- neither have I seen the film version of Phantom Tollbooth. It's one of those books I prefer in my imagination...

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