The Phantom Toll­booth

Published Categorised as Books, Films, Popular Posts 2 Comments on The Phantom Toll­booth

I recently watched this docu­ment­ary about the Phantom Toll­booth, one of my favour­ite books when I was young­er. (I still have the same battered, dog-eared paper­back copy). Milo, the main char­ac­ter, is a boy who is always bored and doesn’t see the point in anything.

“When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he was some­where else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Noth­ing really inter­ested him – least of all the things that should have”.

One day he comes home to a myster­i­ous parcel contain­ing a toy toll­booth, so he drives through it in his toy car, and finds himself on an adven­ture where most of the people and events are based on taking common English idioms very very liter­ally. It’s a funny, clev­er and warm book which is very well loved (and has a not partic­u­larly great anim­ated film version from the 60s with the boy from the Munsters which can be seen in full on Youtube these days)


“Don’t you know anything at all about numbers?”

“Well, I don’t think they’re very import­ant,” snapped Milo, too embar­rassed to admit the truth.

“NOT IMPORTANT!” roared the Dodeca­hed­ron, turn­ing red with fury. “Could you have tea for two without the two — or three blind mice without the three? Would there be four corners of the earth if there weren’t a four? And how would you sail the seven seas without a seven?”

“All I meant was — ” began Milo, but the Dodeca­hed­ron, over­come with emotion and shout­ing furi­ously, carried right on.

“If you had high hopes, how would you know how high they were? And did you know that narrow escapes come in all differ­ent widths? Would you travel the whole wide world without ever know­ing how wide it was? And how could you do anything at long last,” he concluded, waving his arms over his head, “without know­ing how long the last was? Why, numbers are the most beau­ti­ful and valu­able things in the world. Just follow me and I’ll show you.” He turned on his heel and stalked off into the cave.”


I never really knew or had thought about the back­story of the book, and it turned out to be lovely. Norton Juster, the author, was a lecturer at an archi­tec­ture school in New York in the early 60s. He was commis­sioned to write an educa­tion­al book about town plan­ning for chil­dren, but didn’t enjoy it at all, and hit a block.

To procras­tin­ate, he wrote a children’s story instead, and cajoled his flat­mate, polit­ic­al cartoon­ist Jules Feif­fer, into draw­ing the illus­tra­tions by telling him that he wouldn’t be getting any more nice dinners cooked for him if he didn’t hand over some draw­ings. No-one thought the book would go anywhere, and so-called experts at the time said it was unsuit­able for chil­dren, but here it is, a clas­sic 50 years later. The two men are still great friends to this day, and come across like a pair of really great uncles in the docu­ment­ary- Norton being small and round and geni­al, and Jules being tall and thin with a dry sense of humour. The film also has stop-motion anim­a­tion and narra­tion by David Hyde Pierce of Frasi­er and is well worth a watch.

Receive new posts via email. Your data will be kept private.


  1. Is the docu­ment­ary about ‘The Phantom Toll­booth’ avail­able on You Tube? What is the title? This was one of my favor­ite child­hood books – indeed a clas­sic!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.