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Books My Mother Gave Me: The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster) Review

Published August 19, 2013 by ElisaChristy


Due to the fact I am likely to ramble in this review I also put up a video review of this book, but the written version is more coherent.

The story follows a basic adventure plot. Milo arrives home from school to find a cardboard tollbooth in his house, along with a map and some coins. He goes through and finds himself in a strange world with warring kings and literal metaphors.

“You weren’t thinking and you weren’t paying attention either. People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.”

Milo gets lost very early on and finds himself in a place called the Doldrums where it’s very hard to do anything. Even think. He manages to get out with the help of a watchdog – a dog with a clock on his body – called Tock.

Tock actually goes tick, but was inscribed with the name Tock when he was born due to a misunderstanding. He’s very sensitive about the story and cries when he has to tell it.

The first city Milo and Tock arrive at is Dictionopolis. The city of words. It is in Dictionopolis they are given their quest: Rescue Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the air. Rhyme and Reason were sisters who were banished a few years ago for failing to settle an argument between their two king brothers.

“Rhyme and Reason answer all Problems.”

When I was first read this as a child, I loved the literalness of the tollbooth land. Everything is extremely logical, but somehow that seems to make it more confusing. And the only way for everything to make sense is to bring back Rhyme and Reason or more specifically the princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason as they are named.

“If something is there you can only see it with your 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.”

The travellers pass through Illusions and Reality. One beautiful and one invisible because no-one ever looks at it, as they are all too busy trying to get to somewhere. They also meet Chroma, who conducts the symphony of colour for the whole world. If he stops conducting then there is no colour and everything appears in outline. Milo has a go at conducting, and ends up making a whole week pass in a few minutes, and nothing is the colour it should be. The symphony of colour was one of the things I remembered most about the book as it was such a clear image. You can clearly imagine the notes which would appear at dawn, and how each person in the orchestra would pick up their turn.

The travellers carry on their way having various mini adventures as they go – which are much better to read about than explain, so I won’t mention them – eventually they decide nothing can go wrong now and end up in Conclusions.

An island; extremely easy to get to, but almost impossible to get back from. Such is the peril of Jumping to Conclusions. After hours getting back from Conclusions, they finally reach Digitopolis: The city of numbers.

The one thing in the book I never understood was the use of subtraction stew, which is a food in Digitopolis. The more you eat the hungrier you get, which does make sense, but it is never explained how you then get full again, or whether everyone is constantly starving. But as that is the only part of the book I don’t like and as I am bad at maths, it may just be I never figured the explanation out…I can forgive the book that.

“Out the demons came – from every cave and crevice, through every fissure and crack, from under the rocks and up from the mud, stomping and shuffling, slithering and sliding, through the murky shadows. And all had only one thought in mind: destroy the intruders and protect Ignorance.”

The literal metaphors reach a height with the Mountains of Ignorance, which lead to the Castle in the air. The Mountains of Ignorance house many demons such as: the demons of trivial tasks – so you never get anything important done, and the demon of insincerity, who sounds frightening, until you realise he doesn’t mean any of it.

The part with the demons was something I didn’t remember so much from when I was a child, but it’s one of my favourite parts of the book on re-reading it. The demons are all real life things that everyone is guilty of – as is Milo at the beginning of the book – but by making them literal beings, it makes it much easier to see how Milo can defeat each one.

With the princesses rescued, Milo returns home, and the next day, just when he wants to go back through the Tollbooth, it has disappeared, because Milo doesn’t need it anymore.

The land through the Tollbooth is a literal place, with so many memorable images. It makes so much sense, it becomes nonsense. If that makes any sense at all…


map of the land