Study Guide

The Phantom Tollbooth

By Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth Introduction

A book about learning? Yuck – no, thank you. Next?

Wait a second, not so fast. The Phantom Tollbooth is here to show you, once and for all, that learning can be fun (whoa, just like Shmoop!). Imagine if you had a magic pencil to math your way out of sticky situations, or a box of words that helped you defeat evil demons. Sounding a little better, right?

Here's the deal: The Phantom Tollbooth tells the story of a bored kid named Milo, who takes an exciting journey through a magical kingdom, and in the process learns that life (and learning, too) isn't so boring after all. In fact, Shmoop would argue that every single word in this book is fun. Don't believe us? Take a look for yourself.

We've got magic, demons, a young hero, and a general spirit of fun and awesomeness. You younger readers have probably already bolted off to the library to get your hands on a copy of this gem. But for those of you more cynical fun-isn't-for-me types, read on. Ann McGovern, who wrote a rave review for the New York Times when the book was first published, gushed, "Norton Juster's amazing fantasy has something wonderful for anybody old enough to relish the allegorical wisdom of 'Alice in Wonderland' and the pointed whimsy of 'The Wizard of Oz'" (source). We're totally with her. The allegories of The Phantom Tollbooth add a layer of learning that even the wisest of adults can appreciate.

Sure, the book was published in 1961, but guess what? Learning is still fun. And as long as you open your mind to it, it always will be. The Phantom Tollbooth didn't rack up many awards, but it won the most important prize of all: the enduring love of its readers.

What is The Phantom Tollbooth About and Why Should I Care?

Do you ever get bored in class? Antsy at dinner with your family? Do you have a room full of stuff and nothing to do? (Yeah, us too). It can be kind of a bummer, but it definitely helps us identify with our protagonist, Milo. He's almost lethally bored with everything. School's the worst for him – he's totally uninspired by learning things – but relaxation time isn't much better.

Luckily for Milo, rescue appears, in the form of a tollbooth. He drives through it and – BAM! – life's not boring any more. Wouldn't it be cool to go home and find one of these in your own room? Be able to drive through it and go on an adventure of your own? Well, guess what: you don't even need a tollbooth. You just need this book.

After all, when Milo gets back from his journey, he's still got all the tools he needs to have another great adventure any time he wants: they're all inside his head. And because we were along for the ride, we have all have those same tools. We can make the same discoveries Milo does: it's just a matter of viewing the world around us with hope and excitement. We learn a lot of lessons from The Phantom Tollbooth, but Shmoop's favorite is that learning and imagination can take us anywhere.

PS: If you're thinking that Milo's story, which was written in the 1960s, doesn't apply to you, we think you should give it another shot. And author Norton Juster agrees with us: "Today's world of texting and tweeting is quite a different place, but children are still the same as they've always been. They still get bored and confused, and still struggle to figure out the important questions of life" (source). Boredom is boredom, and adventure's adventure, no matter what year it is.

The Phantom Tollbooth Resources


For the Phans
Check out the inside dirt on The Phantom Tollbooth at this site, which advertises an in-depth documentary about the book.

Michael Chabon riffs on his first reading of The Phantom Tollbooth (this is also part of an introduction to the novel as published by Knopf).

Movie Productions

The Phantom Tollbooth, Animated
The 1970 movie version of the book, directed by Chuck Jones, is partly in cartoon form. We think that's kind of fitting.

The Phantom Tollbooth: 2013
Yes, please!

Historical Documents

Original New York Times Review
Ann McGovern raves about The Phantom Tollbooth when it first came out. Throwback!

Fifty Years Later
Adam Gopnik takes his stab at The Phantom Tollbooth: the fiftieth anniversary of the book really sparked a lot of talk. And we couldn't be happier.

Interview with the Man's Laura Miller talks with Norton Juster about The Phantom Tollbooth, the writing process, and life in general. We like this guy.


Old School Trailer
Here's a preview of the 1970 movie, although we recommend checking out the whole thing. What do you think? Is that how you pictured the Lands Beyond?

Preview the musical!
This YouTube short gives you an idea of what the full-length musical (music and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and Arnold Black) is like. Pretty impressive.


Have a Listen
David Hyde Pierce takes a stab at it: how do you think he did? (If you like it, you can buy the whole thing on!)


The Original
This cover illustration – now a classic – was done by Jules Feiffer.

This is Definitely from the 70s
What do you think: does this poster make you want to check out the film version?

Down in the dumps.

The Lands Beyond
This map often appears as the frontispiece (that's the fancy way of saying the picture at the front of a book) of The Phantom Tollbooth.