Top 100 Children’s Novels (#10)
#10 The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2) (#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(#4) (#4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5) (#5)(#5)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#7) (#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7) (#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#9) (#9)(#10)(#10)(#10)(#10)(#10) – 291 points
I’d like to know how many kids developed a full-fledged love of wordplay from this book. There’s something that makes you feel so smart and clever when reading about jumping to Confusions, literally eating your own words, and sparring wits with the Spelling Bee and Canby. And you gotta love the Watchdog.– Brooke Shirts (Casa Camisas)
I think this book inspired my love of puns and wordplay, not to mention math and word games. It brought to earth large concepts like Boredom and Truth. – Maggi Idzikowski,Media Specialist, Allen Elementary School, Ann Arbor MI
I stole this one off my brother’s bookshelf and never gave it back. Oh how I wanted one of those tollbooths! As a lover of words and numbers I was thrilled with every new character and adventure Milo encountered. – Dr. Patricia M. Stohr-Hunt, Chair, Education Department, University of Richmond
Thank you Mrs Bounds for reading this to us in fourth grade! The wordplay is great, and when I realized I knew enough to get the jokes about the cart that “goes without saying,” or “jumping to conclusions,” well, didn’t *I* feel smart and in the know. But what really resonated with me then, and still does, is the revelation that Milo could only rescue the princesses because he didn’t know it was an impossible task. – Melissa Depper, Youth Services Librarian, Arapahoe Library District CO
This book is very close to what it is like inside my head. I realize that might be unnerving. – Katie Fee, Associate Marketing Manager, Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Walker Books for Young Readers
The Phantom Tollbooth was my favorite book as a kid, and still is. I must have read it twenty times before I was a teenager. I read it again in my late twenties and loved it. But until I read it a couple of years ago to my then-six year old, I had no idea what the book was really about! As a child I loved the wordplay, the brilliant illustrations, the vivid characters, and set pieces like the house with four doors and the task of moving a mountain of sand grain by grain. I must have adored it because it’s never left my number one spot. My most recent reading revealed that the book’s deepest profundity is its identification of the perils of boredom, red tape, bickering and hair-splitting. In short, this is a book with themes no kid could possibly understand! It might as well be by Cheever or Bellow. So how come it’s the greatest children’s novel ever? – Dan Levy
A nerdgasm of wordplay and punnery!– (Dreadful Penny)
And to think. Some of you actually forgot this old favorite. Looking through the Top 10 predictions, a mere nine people correctly predicted that it would end up #10 on this list. A pity since it’s a beauty, no question. One of my husband’s favorite books growing up. And now with a new Juster/Feiffer collaboration on the horizon . . . but I get ahead of myself.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, "For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a mysterious tollbooth 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 goes up against the dastardly Discord and Dynne. By the time Milo and Tock set off toward the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the twin Princesses Rhyme and Reason, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams…"
Let us play that old game of how-it-came-to-be. The skinny comes via 100 Best Books for Children by Anita Silvey. According to her, "An architect who wrote for relaxation from arduous planning projects, Norton Juster had received a grant from the Ford Foundation to create a book for children about how people experience cities. In 1959, to avoid writing this book, he began working on a short story – one that took on a life of its own. Juster viewed The Phantom Tollbooth as a way to procrastinate from his real responsibilities." Turns out, he was buds with Jules Feiffer who hadn’t really done much with children’s literature at that point. As a recent Publishers Weekly article put it, "Fifty years ago, Norton Juster was pacing his second-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights, unsure that the manuscript he was working on—his first—would ever be published, much less become a classic of children’s literature. His roommate was his first reader, who also voluntarily sketched some pictures to go with Juster’s story. The roommate was Jules Feiffer. The manuscript was The Phantom Tollbooth."
The book has since gone on to sell 3.3 million copies.
In terms of the sheer number of puns in this book, Juster once explained in an interview with Salon where they may have come from. "My father was a punster. … he’d say something and I’d groan. There’s no way you can deal with that as a child. You’re not that facile or quick. Years later I got to appreciate it. He’d sometimes walk in a room and say, ‘Ah ha! I see you’re coming early since lately. You used to be behind before but now you’re first at last …’ "
In an interview with The Purple Crayon, Juster actually did quite a fine job of defining why the book continues to be such a rousing success. "My wife and I were over in England, on a little trip. That you know. And I was interviewed by a childrens’ magazine called ‘Carousel,’ put out in Yorkshire. And we were chatting and he said, ‘You know what my favorite part of the book is?’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Well, this one little scene where they’re all sitting in this little wagon. And Milo says, ‘Shh, be very quiet cause it goes without saying.’ Now that’s something I’d be willing to bet that probably 90 out of a hundred kids 8, or 9, or 10-years-old are not going to get. But it doesn’t matter at all cause it gets in the way of the story. But it was something to him, and he had only read it as an adult, you see. So that is kind of nice, when that happens. You realize again, quite accidentally, I think, that there are things in there that appeal to different people at different times in their life."
Lest you think that Norton Juster’s life begins and ends with children’s literature, remember that he had a day job too. "Trained as an architect, he spent the next 30 years drawing blueprints for schools, fire stations, and perhaps most famously, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, near Juster’s home in western Massachusetts. ‘It’s hard for people to understand you can do more than one thing well,’ he says."
Fun Fact: Feiffer’s model for the Whether Man? Norton Juster.
Newbery Award-wise, it won nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. What did win in 1962? The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare got the award and Frontier Living by Edwin Tunis, The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, and Belling The Tiger by Mary Stolz got Honors. No comment.
When at all possible I like to pair these postings with a bit of contemporary news. In this particular case, you may or may not have heard that Juster and Feiffer are pairing up after all these years for yet another collaboration. Yup. Forty-nine years later (just let that sink in a bit) Entertainment Weekly announces that, "Author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer are collaborating on The Odious Ogre, which is set for a fall 2010 release." Publishers Weekly fills in the pertinent details. As editor Michael di Capua (yup, he’s still around too) put it, " ‘this story about the ogre is extremely witty and has a certain black humor to it,’ di Capua said. The ogre, for instance, has an impressive vocabulary, ‘due mainly to having inadvertently swallowed a large dictionary while consuming the head librarian in one of the nearby towns’." Far be it from me to promote the indiscriminate devouring of my librarian brethren, but it sounds rather neat. Many thanks to Carol Reid for the info.
- Feel free to read this interview with Juster in The Purple Crayon.
- And the Salon interview is here.
Library Journal said of it at the time (amusingly), "The ironies, the subtle play on words will be completely lost on all but the most precocious children. Definitely for the sophisticated, special reader. Only the large libraries can afford to experiment with it."
The first cover is pretty much iconic, but if you scratch around a bit you can find some others here and there.
In 1970 Chuck Jones animated a version of this book. The trailer is here. Twenty points for anyone who can identify the primary voice (not the narrator) in this.
But instead of ending with that today I’m more than happy to finish with this Forensics Public Speaking Duo instead. Those of you who did Forensics in high school (admit it . . . that’s about 34% of you, so don’t be ashamed) will take a particular pleasure in this. I know I did.
Filed under: Top 100 Children's Novels (2010)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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