The Phantom Tollbooth

Norton Juster, the author of The Phantom Tollbooth died Monday, leaving behind one of the best children’s books, ever.

My parents were always subtle about books; they never handed me something and said “here read this” but sometimes something would appear on one of the many bookshelves in the house, and I’d notice it and take a look. The Phantom Tollbooth was left by the child of another wandering academic, and I opened it and immediately fell in love.

It’s written to the level of a child but it’s simple and the language is beautiful yet readable. What’s memorable is his quirky use of imagery that is beautiful yet idiosyncratic. It made kid-Marcus think and literally broadened the horizons of my imagination as I tried to encompass a bunch of weird ideas like Tock, the watchdog who is literally, a dog and and an alarm clock. And then there’s one of my favorite ideas/scenes in all of literature, in which the protagonist, Milo, meets the orchestra that plays the sunrises and sunsets. Things happen; I won’t spoil any of it, but it’s beautiful.

As a child, I had vivid mental images of the orchestra playing the purples into a dramatic sunset (I’m guessing that would be the cellos?) and highlights where the dying sun flashes across the landscape (piccolos and flutes)  It was not until many years later, when an audiophile friend with a spectacular sound system played me the Telarc Digital binaural recording of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis. I used to fall asleep to that record, and wore out two copies over the years. If you give this a listen, listen to it as a sunset, or a dawn.

The visual image of an orchestra and its stalwart conductor, doing a different performance of “sunset” and “dawn” every day morning and evening – it’s precious and magical, still.

About a decade ago, I decided to collect signed 1st editions of the books that have been particularly important to me. With a few exceptions – signed 1st editions of Mark Twain are quite unattainable, and a 1st edition of Histoire D’O costs as much as a decent house – the collection started with Juster:

If you have kids, or are still a kid yourself, I recommend the book.

Goodbye, Norton Juster, and thank you for the dreams.

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I was tempted to include a bunch of quotes from the book, but – seriously – just read it.

I wrote earlier about this book [stderr]


  1. jenorafeuer says

    Oh wow yes. I remember reading that when I was young, and bought another copy later when I was in University. (I think seeing a production of the play Hold Me! from Jules Feiffer, who also did the illustrations for The Phantom Tollbooth, was what made me get a new copy.)

    It’s been called the 20th century’s response to Alice in Wonderland for a reason… a lot of similar thought-provoking wordplay. That book is seriously quotable, but where would you stop? It must be a translator’s nightmare.

    It definitely falls into the ‘books that I will always be glad I have read’ category for me.

  2. Sunday Afternoon says

    The Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis is one of those perfect pieces.

    The first proper orchestral concert I went to on my own volition as I started university began with the Fantasia. I had been to many high school concerts, mostly wind bands, and through music courses, listened to lot of orchestral music on reasonable hi-fis. But nothing had prepared me for being in person in front of a professional level string orchestra! Wow – the opening with the shimmering violins over the pizzicato cellos and basses was sublime (and not captured in the excerpt in the video posted in the OP above – see here:

    More recently, our choir has sung the original Tallis piece – where the melody is in the tenor so I got to sing it…!

  3. lakitha tolbert says

    That is one of my all time favorite children’s books. I re-read it many times, and when I became an adult I made sure to buy a copy.

    I have incredibly vivid memories of the images from that book, with my favorite characters being Tock, The Humbug, and the character with the most awesome name, The Mathemagician!

  4. robert79 says

    @4 lakitha tolbert “The Mathemagician”

    Funny how memory works… I’ve read the Phantom Tollbooth as a kid and loved it. But I don’t remember the Mathemagician. However, I’m a mathematician, and I’ve used the term occasionally to describe someone who thinks of proofs, arguments, or results which, at first glance, seemed magical to me. I always thought it was a clever pun on my part, invented by me… turns out I’m wrong and my subconscious is probably having a great laugh here…

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I echo everything everyone said about how wonderful the book was. I got a copy and read it when my family was traveling through England when I was seven.
    After many rereadings, that copy got left in the back yard in the rain, lost its cover, and became unreadable. I got another copy and was very surprised that Milo rode up in an elevator to his apartment, rather than going up in a lift to his flat!
    But yes — we could all use a little Rhyme and Reason these days.

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