• Happy birthday William Loren Katz (Black Women of the Old West), Helen Oxenbury (We’re Going on a Bear Hunt), and Michael Emberley (It’s Perfectly Normal).
  • It’s the birth date of Paul Galdone (1914-1986), The Three Billy Goats Gruff.
  • Martha Washington (1731-1802), the first First Lady of the United States, was born on this day. Read The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s Slave Finds Freedom by Emily Arnold McCully.

Today marks the birthday of Norton Juster, a man who should be named the patron saint of all who put pen to paper. One of the things that all writers do, on almost a daily basis, is avoid writing. If most of us put as much energy into writing as we put into not writing, the world would simply be flooded with books.

Creative procrastination can sometimes lead to great things—that is what writers constantly tell themselves. Our birthday guru proved this point several decades ago. An architect by trade, Norton Juster received a Ford Foundation grant to write about how people experience cities. To avoid work on this project, he began spilling out another tale about a very bored boy, Milo, who travels in an electric car to the Kingdom of Wisdom. In this land, with its tension between words and numbers, Milo encounters an array of fascinating characters: giant insects (Humbug and the Spelling Bee) and a watchdog, Tock, whose body contains a large alarm clock. Even the minor characters in this book have names that can be savored: Duke of Definition, Minister of Meaning, Earl of Essence, Count of Connotation, and Undersecretary of Understanding. In this story that might remind readers of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Milo attempts to rescue the twin sisters Rhyme and Reason and goes from one fantastic region of this madcap world to another.

As luck would have it, Juster lived in the same apartment building with cartoonist Jules Feiffer in Brooklyn Heights, New York. So as the book was created, Feiffer made drawings of these incredible creatures. The story became a kind of competition between the two creators; the author attempted to describe things that would be difficult for Feiffer to draw. The whole exercise became a game, inventive, free-flowing—a fabulous example of thinking and writing out of the box.

Evidentially, when the Ford Foundation received a copy of the manuscript, they did not respond. But children have absolutely adored The Phantom Tollbooth since in appeared in 1961. So, happy 82nd birthday Norton Juster. You remind all of us that some of our best work comes when we are avoiding what we think we should be doing.

Here’s a passage from The Phantom Tollbooth:

The little car started to go faster and faster as Milo’s brain whirled with activity, and down the road they went. In a few moments they were out of the Doldrums and back on the main highway. All the colors had returned to their original brightness, and as they raced along the road Milo continued to think of all sorts of things; of the many detours and wrong turns that were so easy to take, of how fine it was to be moving along, and, most of all, of how much could be accomplished with just a little thought. And the dog, his nose in the wind, just sat back, watchfully ticking.

“You must excuse my gruff conduct,” the watchdog said, after they’d been driving for some time, “but you see it’s traditional for watchdogs to be ferocious.”



Originally posted June 2, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Adventure, Cars, Games, Humor, Imagination, Transportation
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Phantom Tollbooth


  1. Sydnee says:

    I first encountered this book in elementary school, and unfortunately it was a read-aloud, so it lost much of its charm. Later, I found that when I read it on my own at home I was entertained with those puzzles and puns for hours. I adore this book, and I’m glad to see it in the almanac.

  2. Although Norton Juster would probably laugh hysterically at what I am about to say, I think that Milo takes a journey into a deconstructionist’s playground. Deconstructionists prefer the primacy of the written word over speech, and this book is all about the playfulness of the written word. The funny thing is that deconstruction as a literary theory wasn’t even around when Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth. Maybe in this story in which Rhyme and Reason are rescued, Juster opened the cave door to deconstruction.”Possibly. Maybe. Perhaps.”

  3. Anita,

    After portraying exceptional children’s books over the past many months, finally the Almanac has also given us the secret of author excellence.

    As of today, a career as a renowned children’s author is attainable for most of us who could previously only dream about it .

    The link for the Ford Foundation’s grant program is: http://www.fordfoundation.org/Grants

    “Each year the Ford Foundation receives about 44,000 proposals and makes about 2,000 grants.”

    Let us roll up our sleeves, apply and writing a children’s book will be easy. :-)

    Well, on a more serious note, do you know how excited Read Aloud Dad is about this book? I am as impatient as a caged hamster after receiving a new larger wheel!

    Yet, I will keep my copy of The Phantom Tollbooth in the bookcase, until my twins are ready to read it. If there is one thing I learned reading aloud to them – it is that you cannot imitate a first impression that a book makes on you. I am saving that “first enthusiastic impression” for our joint read-aloud sessions one day.

    Reading a classic as The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time – is an experience I want to share with my kids!

    Your truly

    Prince of Postponement

    P.S. I wonder why the Ford Foundation has this statement displayed prominently on its “Grants” page: “We set benchmarks to measure success and monitor progress to ensure that goals are being met.”

  4. G.Perry says:

    I had to take three runs at keeping this one going. Finally, I just decided to forget my normal way of reading, and have fun with it.

    Once I got in the right frame of mind for this specific book, I thought it was great.

  5. suzi w. says:

    I’m glad that G. Perry had a hard time getting into this book, it makes me feel less like a failed reader. I will give it another go. I have had people telling me to read this book since 1994. (Specifically an ex-boyfriend and a minister, with a few others in between.)

  6. I read this book aloud to my 4th grade class every year. I agree with Sydnee- much can be lost in a read aloud. I would pause and write important words on the board such as weather and whether (as in, the Whether Man will tell you whether or not there will be weather).

    I’m sure some of the puns were lost on my students but they couldn’t wait for me to read it each day. At the time, our school had an open classroom design- that is our classrooms were separated from the hallway by a line of rolling 6 foot tall cabinets. That meant rooms across the hall from each other could sometimes hear what was going on across the way. One day, my colleague came over laughing to tell me her 5th graders were rapt listening to my crazy voice for Doctor Discord the Doctor of Dissonance. Several of them went on to read it themselves.


  7. One of the best books I read as a child. I still imagine myself in the Doldrums and Dictionopolis from time to time.

  8. Erica S. says:

    This is one of my absolute favorites. As a lover of words, I always felt like this book was written especially for me in all my nerdy glory. It also makes one of the best “re-reads” – every time I read it, I feel like I discover a new pun or bit of humor. Thank you, Norton Juster!

  9. Anita says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Suzi and G. Perry remind me that we all need to read the right book at the right time. Sometimes great books elude us. In my case, it was The Hobbit, particularly bad because I was its Publisher. And then, one day, when I had time and had no particular reason to read it, I picked it up, and read “In the hole in a ground lived a hobbit.” I did not shut the book until finished. I was ready — the book had always been spectacular.

  10. Erika says:

    I read this with my (then) 7-1/2 yr old last fall, and although she wasn’t sure about it at first, it didn’t take long–we got to the Whether Man, and she laughed and laughed. A couple of weeks ago, she asked me to read it to her again (an honor thus far reserved only for Charlotte’s Web, the Little House books, and Betsy Tacy), so when we finish “Heidi,” we’ll start it over…

  11. Rebecca says:

    This book is truly a pleasure to read, and reread. I read it for the first time in 6th grade during a long unit on figurative language and thought it the most clever read ever – like Erica, I presumed it was written just for me. It’s wonderful to know that Juster wrote it just for himself. He says that rarely does a day go by when someone does not talk to him about this book, and the pleasure it has brought to readers — young and old– is one of his life’s great joys. Happy birthday, Norton!

  12. John says:

    Anita—When I think of my year teaching fourth grade, The Phantom Tollbooth immediately comes to mind. My students and I rewrote it as a play and put on a FANTASTIC production. Thank you for celebrating this classic.

    (By the way, I’m glad School Library Journal featured The Phantom Tollbooth on the May cover.)

  13. Anita says:

    John: Thanks for mentioning that The Phantom Tollbooth was on the May SLJ cover — as were you!

  14. Ms. YIngling says:

    If I ever had to memorize a book (ala Fahrenheit 451), it would be this one. I frequently read the first paragraph out loud to my students to encourage them to check it out. My own personal children read it in 3rd grade only after they promised they would read it again in 7th– they were amazed at how much they missed the first time. Mr. Juster is a great writer!

  15. Maria Simon says:

    We celebrated Helen Oxenbury’s birthday today reading her It’s My Birthday at our Baby & Toddler storytime!

  16. CLM says:

    Such a favorite! I remember contemplating this book in my grade school library in 4th grade and hesitating because of the word phantom, then decided to try it. My siblings and I have read it so many times since then. In honor of your post, I bought a copy for children of friends I am visiting on Saturday, along with The Enormous Egg (annoyingly, The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear appears to be OP).

  17. Meagan Maher says:

    I always loved the Phantom Tollbooth – it’s exactly the reason I chose this book for my paper in our publishing class. I was first introduced to this book in fouth grade – I found it one day when I was rummaging through the school library – and fell in love with it. It was the first book that made me actually want to pay attention in my Language Arts class. The punning and the word-play was so quote-worthy!!! I mimicked The Humbug and Tock all the time.
    I really do give Norton Juster credit as one of my inspirations to my dream of becoming a children’s author one day. I really love this book!!

  18. Anne Rockwell says:

    I am enjoying the comments regarding the difference between the spoken and the READ word. I thought I was alone with these thoughts.

  19. GM Hakim says:

    For some reason, I never read this book as a child. I had heard the title, but it wasn’t until I turned thirty (30!) that I read it for the first time. It instantly became one of my favorites. Juster’s use of language is fun to read, and provides just the kind of exciting escape that bored children (like Milo) need. There are many books that privilege reading as sacred or worthwhile, but not many are quite so much FUN.

Leave a Comment

Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

Discover the stories behind the children’s book classics . . .

The new books on their way to becoming classics . . .

And events from the world of children’s books—and the world at large.