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Book Review

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster with illustrations by Jules Feiffer has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Milo is a boy who doesn't know what to do. Everything in his life seems like a waste of time. One day, he finds a package in his room containing a tollbooth. Since he has nothing better to do, Milo hops in his toy car and picks a random destination from the map in the box. The town he chooses is called Dictionopolis. When Milo goes through the tollbooth, he finds he is no longer in his room but driving through a strange land.

Milo's first stop is a town called Expectations. Then he veers into the Doldrums, where lackluster Lethargarians spend their days loitering, dillydallying and daydreaming. A watchdog named Tock, whose body is a working alarm clock, tries to prevent residents from wasting time. When he meets Milo, he helps him think his way out of the Doldrums and accompanies him on his trip to Dictionopolis.

Milo and Tock arrive in Dictionopolis just as the word market is opening. They wander through the market, meeting the Spelling Bee and a surly creature called a Humbug. When the Bee and the Humbug get into a tiff, the Bee topples the word merchants' booths in domino fashion. He flies away, and a police officer blames Milo and Tock for the disturbance. He sentences them to six million years in prison. In jail, they meet a Which named Faintly Macabre. She's a kind old woman who gained her title because she was once the person who helped the king choose which words were best for various occasions. When she fell out of favor with the king, he threw her into prison. She says the only thing that can save her is the return of Rhyme and Reason.

The Which tells Milo and Tock the history of the land. Once, evil creatures roamed what was known as the land of Null. A prince sailed his ship into the Sea of Knowledge and claimed the land in the name of goodness and truth. He built a small city and continued to battle the land's demons and monsters until his increasingly large territory became known as the kingdom of Wisdom. His two sons each created cities, always arguing whether numbers or words were most important. The king adopted two abandoned girls in his old age, which he named Rhyme and Reason. After his death, one son went to the south and became known as Azaz the Unabridged, King of Dictionopolis. The other went north and became the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis. The brothers took care of Rhyme and Reason, who helped them and their people settle many disputes. The feuding brothers finally decided they needed to know once and for all whether words or numbers were superior. They asked Rhyme and Reason, and the sisters deliberated. At last, they replied that words and numbers were equally important. The brothers became so angry that they banished the princesses to the Castle in the Air. The girls had not been seen since. The two kingdoms remain, the Which says, but the city of Wisdom has fallen into disrepair, and there is no one to set things right. She says the stairway leading to the castle, where the princesses are located, is guarded by fierce, black-hearted demons.

The Which shows Milo and Tock a simple way out of the prison, and they find themselves having an odd lunch and wordplay with King Azaz and his court. After lunch, when the king is lamenting the state of the kingdom, Milo asks why he doesn't bring Rhyme and Reason back to the kingdom. The Humbug, also present, relays the great treachery that would be involved. In addition, the plan would first require the Mathemagician's approval. The king allows Milo and Tock to go to Digitopolis to ask. It is a dangerous trip. King Azaz sends the Humbug to be their guide.

En route to Digitopolis, the trio drives through strange cities including Point of View, Illusion and Reality. They meet Kakofouous A. Dischord and Doctor of Dissonance, and they help return noise to the Valley of Sound. They also take an unwanted jump to the land of Conclusions. They meet a Dodecahedron who touts the beauty and precision of numbers, and he takes them to the number mine where they find the Mathemagician. The Mathemagician stumps them with number games and story problems before they can explain their purpose. He reluctantly agrees to let them attempt to rescue Rhyme and Reason and points them toward the forbidding mountains of Ignorance. There, they begin to encounter the demons they've heard so much about.

The demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs tricks them into moving grains of sand with tweezers. When they finally realize what's happening, they escape. Then they meet the demon of insincerity, a Gelatinous Giant and a Senses Taker, who distracts them with pleasant sites, sounds and smells. When they finally get to the castle and collect Rhyme and Reason, numerous demons chase them in an effort to protect Ignorance. All seems lost, until the kings arrive together with their armies and scare away the demons. Rhyme and Reason return to the kingdom of Wisdom and great celebrations ensue.

After a few days of revelry, Milo returns home. The tollbooth has disappeared from his room. While he's disappointed that he can't return to see his new friends, he's learned he has much to see and experience in his own world.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems

Demons and monsters that live in Ignorance guard the Castle in the Air. The demons, which may seem comical to readers, are called fierce, evil and black-hearted by the citizens of Wisdom. Some of these include the Overbearing Know-it-all, Gross Exaggeration and Threadbare Excuse.

Authority Roles

The two kings, brothers Azaz and the Mathemagician, allow their disagreements to harm the entire kingdom by banishing Rhyme and Reason. In the end, they band together to fight the demons and restore the integrity of the kingdom of Wisdom.





Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments/Notes

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

8 and up




Norton Juster






Record Label



Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Books for Young Readers, Random House Inc.


On Video

Year Published



Scholastic Parent and Child 100 Greatest Books for Kids, 2012; William Allen White Children's Book Award Master List, 1963


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