Life Lessons in the Phantom Tollbooth: Has It Aged Well?


I read The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, for the first time three years ago, absorbing it as an adult and wishing it had been in my life when I was a child. Its wordplay would have delighted me, and its gentle wisdom would have reinforced the life lessons my parents and community were teaching me.

As a parent, I am glad my children have this book in their lives. We read it together three years ago, and last weekend, while driving to the beach, we listened to the new audiobook narrated by Rainn Wilson.

My kids enjoyed listening to the story, which describes the adventures of a child named Milo “who didn’t know what to do with himself–not just sometimes, but always.”

But then Milo, “who has plenty of time,” finds a mysterious package in his bedroom. It’s a turnpike tollbooth! He gets into his toy car, pays the toll, and heads to Dictionopolis, a town in the Kingdom of Wisdom, where Milo learns the importance of appreciating and understanding the world around him.

My children’s favorite part of the story straddles Chapters 10, “A Colorful Symphony,” and 11, “Dischord and Dynne.” Here, Alec Bings, a child who “see[s] through things,” informs Milo that musicians fill the world with color.

It would have been lovely to hear the musicians on the audiobook, but as Rainn Wilson narrates, “you don’t listen to this concert–you watch it. Now pay attention.”

Chroma the Great, the conductor, directs a thousand musicians to play the sunset:

The last colors slowly faded from the western sky, and, as they did, one by one the instruments stopped, until only the bass fiddles, in their somber slow movement, were left to play the night and a single set of silver bells brightened the constellations. The conductor let his arms fall limply at his sides and stood quite still as darkness claimed the forest.

At night, the basses play the darkness. In the morning, the oboes play warm yellow sunshine, and the flutes play rays of light. My kids loved hearing references to the instruments they play.

With the audiobook, I missed Jules Feiffer’s playful illustrations of the musicians and Chroma the Great, but there’s something so lovely about listening to a story. It’s like being a kid again.

However, remembering that I’m a mother listening to an audiobook with my kids, I took the opportunity to point out a few ways The Phantom Tollbooth hasn’t aged well. The book is almost sixty years old.

First, in Chapter 10, while illustrating how size is a matter of perspective, the text uses a term more commonly used in the past that many people with dwarfism find offensive. I would never want my children using that term, and I cringed every time I heard Rainn Wilson say it. I wish the author, editors, and/or publisher had found a substitute for this word for the 50th anniversary edition and the audiobook. (For a more detailed discussion on a similar topic, see More Thoughts on the Censorship Spectrum: Cleansing Racist Themes from Children’s Books).

Second, the Kingdom of Wisdom, which is “advantageously located in the Foothills of Confusion,” has a colonization history that describes the settlers as bringing civilization and wisdom to a land occupied by demons. This is make-believe, but it’s reminiscent of the justifications Europeans used for centuries as they colonized lands that didn’t belong to them.

Third, Milo’s mission is to save two princesses, Rhyme and Reason. It’s a common theme in literature, but it feels antiquated. Girls don’t need boys to save them.

Despite these flaws, The Phantom Tollbooth remains one of my favorite books. Its best parts extol the virtues of attentiveness and curiosity, and its imperfections gave me an opportunity to share with my children my perspective on problematic aspects of the past.

16 comments

  1. I loved this book as a kid, and honestly, those three things you mention could be a lot worse, in terms of how books of this era tend to age. It’s great that you’re making me mindful of that stuff though! Hopefully when I read it with my little nephew, I can talk with him about those issues. I love all the wordplay, though. This is the book that taught me the word macabre! One of the best words!

    1. So many books from the same era haven’t aged well, and this one is definitely better than most. It’s still wonderful to read, and my kids loved it. I hope your nephew will love it too!

  2. When you talked to your girls about the three things that you found antiquated, what did they say in response? I always wonder how children process such conversations — if you don’t mind sharing.

    Also, I read your post about cleansing racist themes from children’s books. It seems that many of the comments come from people who have the luxury of asking that everyone just “get along” and stop talking about race — because the conversation bores them, but also asks them to be compassionate, which is work. I also think that some people believe that children’s books are written for entertainment. But books for children are often meant to teach them, and I think some of the comments missed the fact that the author of Little Black Sambo likely wrote the book to teach white children that dark children are different, and not in a good way. Could there be an underlying message there about missionaries, “heathens,” how white people are “civilized” by comparison? I wouldn’t doubt it.

    I remember being a tween and reading Sweet Valley High. There were all these small moments of fat shaming that I didn’t recognize as such then, but see glaringly now. For instance, Jessica would eat two pancakes and then whine about how she was never going to fit into her cheerleader uniform. I remember this moment so clearly now, 20 years later, because it affected me SO NEGATIVELY back then — but I didn’t know why. Was this pancake scene so worth it? The novel would not be different for removing that moment, and even though tweens are older than your girls in your post from 2012 (!), tweens are still subject to negative influence without an adult to help them process messages. I read somewhere that most girls by age 11 hate themselves.

    1. “I read somewhere that most girls by age 11 hate themselves.”

      My older two are 11, and I hope they have high self-esteem, but it’s hard to know, and countering the harmful messages around them is a challenge. I try to use examples in books to counter these messages. They’ve read some Sweet Valley High, and we’ve talked about how Jessica complains about being “disgustingly fat” in the opening of the first book in the series. My older two agreed with me that it’s a problem, and they couldn’t understand why Jessica would feel that way or think it was such a negative thing.

      As for The Phantom Tollbooth, my older two also easily understood why the three issues I raised were a problem. For them, it is enough to know that many people with dwarfism find the “m-word” offensive, and I showed them the statement from Little People of America (linked in the post). They are also aware of our problematic history of colonization (and its longstanding impact), and we talked about how the plot would change if the land had been uninhabited when the young prince arrived. Because the plot of The Phantom Tollbooth is kind of an afterthought—the book is essentially a loosely connected set of punny vignettes—the colonization theme isn’t necessary.

      Finally, they didn’t need my prompting to note that girls don’t need boys to save them. My kids understand that on their own, and I’m learning a lot from them about how norms may be changing. My younger kid, who turned 8 on Sunday (we went to the beach to celebrate her birthday), is less engaged in these conversations than her older sisters are, but that will change as she grows up.

      1. I know there is a long history of mothers with low self-esteem affecting their daughters directly, and I can’t imagine that you are that kind of mother. My mother hated her body, which she learned from her mother. I’m so glad there are people like you to help teach your daughters about things most parents don’t even realize are an issue.

        1. I’m trying to make sure my insecurities and self-doubt aren’t infectious. I want my kids to feel confident, secure, and happy while also knowing that they might experience the opposite feelings sometimes. When that happens, I hope they’ll talk to me. My goal is to make sure the lines of communication are always open. No subject is off the table. My biggest concern is that they’ll inherit my anxiety (I already know they have), and I’m trying to give them as many coping skills as I can while trying to teach them to take as broad a perspective on life as possible. My anxiety always stemmed from being too concerned about issues that really weren’t a big deal in the long run (grades, test scores, a class I disliked, college admissions, etc.). I was too narrowly focused. I want them to be more balanced than I was.

          1. Chronic anxiety is awful. I’ve had it since I was a little bitty kid, and it manifests itself in ways that are beyond normal. Today, I received a bill from my dentist; they want $20 for fluoride treatment. But they never gave me fluoride, and I remember being anxious about it then, too anxious to tell the lady she forgot, and now I’m incredibly anxious because the dentist’s office is closed until Monday and I feel like the world is going to blow up if I can’t explain that I have been wronged RIGHT NOW. Whew, okay, that was a lot.

            1. I would stress about that bill too! I’m so glad I’m able to spend more time in the garden these days. It helps a lot to have something else, something productive and bigger than the issues I worry about, to focus on.

              1. If possible, would you share a pic of your whole yard on your blog or on Twitter (and @ me)? I always wonder if you have all your plants together, or if it’s a sprawling yard, or what. Your garden makes me happy 🙂

  3. I read it as an adult and also wished I’d known about it as a kid. One of the art pieces in Sammy’s room is a quote from this book. I haven’t read it in quite a while- maybe 8 years? 10? I look forward to sharing it with Sammers when he’s older. I noticed similar issues with Mr. Popper’s Penguins not aging well during my last re-read, mostly with regard to gender stereotypes. Mrs. Popper deserved better. I want to capture all the charm for him but eliminate the problematic messages. Ah well. Never too early to begin lessons in critical thinking, I suppose.

    1. Mr. Popper’s Penguins! I loved that book when I was a kid. My twins read that one on their own, and I haven’t re-read it. I’m not surprised it hasn’t aged well in certain respects.

    1. It is! One of my favorite activities is sharing the books I loved as a kid with my own children. I wish I had read The Phantom Tollbooth when I was my kids’ ages, but it’s never too late to enjoy it.

    1. It was so much fun to read it with my kids! I hope your experience reading it with your son is just as enjoyable. I’d be curious to know if you notice any other issues with the book after you read it again.

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