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The Phantom Tollbooth

Last updated Thursday, September 24, 2020

Author: Norton Juster
Illustrator: Jules Feiffer
Date of Publication: 1961
ISBN: 0394815009
Grade Level: 4th    (GLCs: Click here for grade level guidelines.)
Date(s) Used: Jan. 2011

Synopsis: Review: "It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time," Milo laments. "[T]here's nothing for me to do, nowhere I'd care to go, and hardly anything worth seeing." This bored, bored young protagonist who can't see the point to anything is knocked out of his glum humdrum by the sudden and curious appearance of a tollbooth in his bedroom. Since Milo has absolutely nothing better to do, he dusts off his toy car, pays the toll, and drives through. What ensues is a journey of mythic proportions, during which Milo encounters countless odd characters who are anything but dull. Norton Juster received (and continues to receive) enormous praise for this original, witty, and oftentimes hilarious novel, first published in 1961. In an introductory "Appreciation" written by Maurice Sendak for the 35th anniversary edition, he states, "The Phantom Tollbooth leaps, soars, and abounds in right notes all over the place, as any proper masterpiece must." Indeed. As Milo heads toward Dictionopolis he meets with the Whether Man ("for after all it's more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be"), passes through The Doldrums (populated by Lethargarians), and picks up a watchdog named Tock (who has a giant alarm clock for a body). The brilliant satire and double entendre intensifies in the Word Market, where after a brief scuffle with Officer Short Shrift, Milo and Tock set off toward the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the twin Princesses, Rhyme and Reason. Anyone with an appreciation for language, irony, or Alice in Wonderland-style adventure will adore this book for years on end.

Note to readers:
•  Hear and see this book read aloud on YouTube by one of our volunteers, including a craft at the end! The rest of this book can be seen at this YouTube playlist.
•  This book was written in 1961 and there are references to items common during that time but no longer used today, for example, "phonograph". Also, the author is from the east coast and references things common there but not here in Southern California, for example, "turnpike" and "tollbooth". The nearest tollbooth on a turnpike (road) is on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. You may wish to explain how things are different in other parts of the country and in the past. Vocabulary: phantom; dejectedly; phonograph (record player); turnpike; tollbooth; precautionary; cartographers; expectations; predictions; perilouslyl

Discussion topics for before reading:
•  What do you think a "Phantom Tollbooth" is?
•  Have you ever passed a tollbooth?
•  What do you call a dog with a clock on? (answer: a watchdog)
•  Can you think of words that sound alike but have different meanings? For example, air and heir; whether and weather; time and thyme; bored and board.

Discussion topics for during/after reading:
•  What do you do when you get home from school?
•  What kinds of things do you do when you are bored and don't have anything planned?
•  What are the different places you would like to visit? Why those places?
•  Have you ever experienced the doldrums? What do you do to get out of it?

Craft ideas:
•  Draw a map of different lands/places/cities you with to visit. The map can be of real places you have heard or imaginary places you can think of. Draw a character for each place on the map. For fun, draw the purple tollbooth on the map where you live.
•  Create a Word Search Puzzle with words that sound alike but are spelled differently. See examples above. Or create the puzzle with the different places you would like to visit

*Note: These craft ideas are just suggestions. You can use them, but you don't have to use them. You can expand upon them, or add your own twist. Remember, though, that the focus of your time should not be on the development and execution of a craft; the focus should be on the read-aloud and the enjoyment of the book!