The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster -Three Categories of Novels for Children

Synopsis: Milo mopes in black ink sketches, until he assembles a tollbooth and drives through. He jumps to the island of Conclusions. But brothers King Azaz of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis war over words and numbers. Joined by ticking watchdog Tock and adult-size Humbug, Milo rescues the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason, and learns to enjoy life.


For the Writer: TPT did not set the standard for this type of story. Reviewers have compared Milo’s journey to Alice in Wonderland, but there is a classic work more similar. TPT is best compared to the book that established the road trip standard for all time, which isJohn Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Both books offer up gems of wisdom, though TPT is tongue trippingly punnier and decidedly more light-hearted.  And despite TPT’s somewhat flippant style,  the story turns out to be an adventure of consequence after all.

Here are a few examples of the sagacious gems to be mined from TPT’s pages:

“Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life.”

“The only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that’s hardly worth the effort.”

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes … as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

“Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it’s quite rusty.”

“Everybody is so terribly sensitive about the things they know best.”

“It’s bad enough wasting time without killing it.”                                            (Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth)

Here is a link to an interesting interview with Norton Juster:


From my reading experience I have generally observed three categories of novels written for children.

First, there are children’s stories like TPT and Pilgrim’s Progress,  which are systematically riddled with proverbs and sagacious advice. Avi’s The End of the Beginning is another book that comes to mind.

Second, are the novels similar to Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and Louis Sachar’s Holes, which seem to fully concentrate on story minus the maxims, which is not to say that the second group of stories contain no quotable life lessons; they are there, but incidentally, such as in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings: For example Gandalf’s quote to Frodo on the steps of Khazad-dum: All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

More rarely,  the third category combines the two. Avi’s Crispin books come immediately to mind. Of course, Shakespeare is another, though plays are a medium where interjected maxims are the norm rather than the exception.

It is for the author to choose.

Typically, stories like TPT, Pilgrim’s Progress and Alice in Wonderland  which follow a road trip however random, on which the protagonist encounters transformative situations and characters, are the tales in which readers find quotable proverbs in abundance. Conversely, if the story is more lyric, serious and emotional,  if the focus is on the tale, fable or legend, if the whole story is the distillation of the life lesson, then stories such as Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath and authors such as Kate DiCamillo and Madeleine L’Engle would be your teachers.

I would like to recommend Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature edited by Sheila Egoff, G.T. Stubbs and L.F. Ashley. I hope to include a proper review of the book on this website soon. Contributors to this collection of essays include Lillian H. Smith, Graham Greene and P. L. Travers of Mary Poppins fame. J.R.R. Tolkien addresses children and fairy stories and C.S. Lewis contributes a great essay tilted On Three Ways of Writing for Children.




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