Book Review: “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster

Warning: This review contains spoilers for “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster, illustrations by Jules Feiffer. If you have not read the book or don’t mind spoilers, go ahead and read this!

Another book review is here, and this time I’ll be reviewing “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster. Here’s a summary of the book so that we have an idea of what it’s about:

For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams. . . .”

This book is very Alice-in-Wonderland-esque, simply because of how Milo curiously explores this entirely different world than the one he lives in. Rhyme and Reason are princesses that were locked up in a floating castle, and without them everything seems to go amok. People sell words and letters in the streets in one place, while Watchdogs are literally part-dog and part-watch.

Unlike in “Alice in Wonderland,” though, Milo does not just passively walk through this fairytale land without really doing anything. He actively tries to solve the problems presented (for example, the second half of the book focuses on Milo’s expedition to rescue Rhyme and Reason to put the rest of the world order) and he tries to make sense of whatever does makes sense in this particular world, too, rather than just “oohing” and “ahhing” at it all the time at what doesn’t make sense. It reflects Milo’s strong curiosity and intrigue in his character, and I liked how his actions in the book emphasized those characteristics.

What I also enjoyed about Milo’s character development is that initially he had no interest in anything, and kind of took all the simple, good things in life for granted. But by the end of the book after traversing through the alternate world and returning back home, he realizes that there are actually a lot of beautiful little things about his world that he can enjoy just as much as being in the alternate world. Milo grows to realize that there are interesting things in his normal life, and I think this is such a thoughtful development for him.

The worldbuilding involved in the book is very interesting. It’s like Alice in Wonderland in the sense that it’s full of very whimsical elements such as a war between words and numbers, an Island of Conclusions, and even Mountains of Ignorance. Admittedly, there is a bit of info-dumping during the first couple chapters of the book to help set up the plot, but plot-wise the book was pretty straightforward. There were some funny moments such as the princesses Rhyme and Reason actually telling Milo to just calm down, sit down and chat with them while Milo is initially panicking about how he needs to break them out of the Castle In the Air and how they need to escape right away.

Overall, I’d give this book a score of 4.5 out of 5 stars, only losing the .5 for the info-dumping. The book is obviously written for younger readers, but I think it’s a book that everyone can still enjoy reading regardless of age.

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