Cooper’s Letter Essay #2: The Phantom Tollbooth

Dear Readers,

I recently finished reading The Phantom Tollbooth written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Norton is an architect and planner as well as the author of a few highly acclaimed books including The Dot and the Line. He has collaborated with Sheldon Hanrick, who has written the lyrics to The Fiddler on the Roof and many other broadway shows. Norton lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with his wife. The Phantom Tollbooth has 256 pages in it and was published in 1961. The book has seen lots of critical acclaim as the book shows 9 separate reviews before the book begins including one where it says that The Phantom Tollbooth is the best book ever. In the front and back of the novel there are maps of the land in which the tollbooth takes Milo, it shows everywhere that Milo travels and some more land and sea. I chose to read The Phantom Tollbooth because Mr. Jockers, my english teacher, said that the book involves a lot of word play. And because I love puns, I took the novel out of the classroom library and read The Phantom Tollbooth.

In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo is a boy who always wants to do something other than what he’s doing and when he’s doing what he wanted to do he wants to do something else, this makes Milo think that everything he does or learns is a waste of time. But one day, when Milo is coming home from school, there is a small car, a tollbooth and some signs with directions on them saying to drive into the tollbooth and go to Dictionopolis. So because Milo has nothing else to do, he decides to follow the instructions to go to Dictionopolis. After driving into the tollbooth, Milo finds himself in a place called Expectations where he meets the Whether Man, a small man with a beard who talks fast and repeats what he says multiple times. After Milo leaves expectations, he continues driving along the road to get to Dictionopolis, but he isn’t thinking while he’s driving and gets stuck in the Doldrums, a place where thinking and laughing is illegal as well as many other everyday things. In the Doldrums, Milo is confronted by a watchdog named Tock because Milo is wasting time. Milo and Tock leave the Doldrums and continue driving to Dictionopolis. When they reach Dictionopolis, there is a guard blocking the gate who lets you through if you have a reason. The guard tells them that ‘why not?’ is a good enough reason for just about anything. In Dictionopolis there is a marketplace where people are selling words and letters. While traversing the confusing market, Milo and Tock run into a Spelling Bee, a bee that spells things. And while they are talking with the Spelling Bee, a Humbug interrupts them and argues with the bee, the Spelling Bee gets mad and rams into the Humbug knocking over all the stands and jumbling up all the letters, making it impossible to say anything correctly. Somehow Milo and Tock are given the blame and are put into jail for six million years. In the jail cell there is a Which who used to be in charge of which words would be used in all occasions. The Which explains that the only guard/judge/jailor doesn’t care if the people he puts in prison stay there and that all she wants is for Rhyme and Reason to return, two princesses who know the answer to everything and kept order between Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. So Milo and Tock leave the prison cell and assure the Which that they will make Rhyme and Reason to return. They go to meet King Azaz the Unabridged at the King’s buffet and after the buffet, King Azaz makes the Humbug go with Milo and Tock to rescue Rhyme and Reason. Then they go to the Forest of Sight and meet Alec Bings, a boy who grows down and can see everything except for what is directly in front of his nose. They visit Reality and Illusions, Illusions is a beautiful city that isn’t real and Reality is an invisible city that no one leaving in the city notices that it vanished. Milo, Tock, Humbug and Alec Bings leave the Forest of Sight and watch a silent symphony that creates all color in the world. And while Chroma the Great (the conductor of the orchestra) was sleeping, Milo tries conducting the symphony but messes up some of the color until Chroma takes over again. Milo, Tock and Humbug then travel to the Valley of Sound, a place where there is no sound because the Soundkeeper took it away. Milo volunteers to get back all the sounds by stealing a sound from the Soundkeeper’s tower. So Milo goes into the tower and it’s the only place in the Valley of Sound that has sound. The Soundkeeper explains why she took away all the sounds from the Valley of Sounds and shows Milo her collection of sounds and that all sounds have an image to go with them. At some point, Milo does sneak out with a sound and places it in a cannon to bring back the sound to the Valley of Sound. Milo, Tock and Humbug continue on their quest to save Rhyme and Reason by traveling to Digitopolis. Digitopolis is ruled by King Azaz’s brother, the Mathmagician. The Mathmagician shows that all numbers are found in mines. Milo tries to convince the Mathmagician to agree with his brother to let Rhyme and Reason to return if Milo, Tock and Humbug rescue them. The Mathmagician refuses because his brother agreed, so Milo tricks the Mathmagician into agreeing and gives Milo a magic staff. He gave Milo a magic staff because now Milo, Tock and Humbug must travel through the Mountains of Ignorance, a terrain filled with demons.

This book reminded me of Roald Dahl book like James and the Giant Peach. It was a clear fantasy straight from the cover of the book and the illustrations looks like they would fit right it with a Roald Dahl book. A lot of the sections of the book wouldn’t necessarily make any sense without the context of the beginning and previous parts of the book. And each chapter stands out from the rest even if it takes place in the same area. The structure of this book may seem scattered from a brief summary but the way that all the chapters and places on the map blend into each other with a transition area makes it feel like I am there watching what’s happening with the illustrations fitting in with the writing in all the right moments and no pictures when it wants you to imagine what the place or thing looks like and what is happening with what you expect it to look like. The main character, Milo, is honestly one of the most uninteresting characters in the entire book, this works in the book’s favor though because it makes how he reacts and describes everything feel exactly how the reader would do so. It makes you love meeting new characters that further Milo’s knowledge about practically everything beautiful about the world. And because Milo is so curious about this strange world he entered, it gives us a better understanding of the world he’s in and makes the reader appreciate the book even more. In this passage, “‘That was a very beautiful sunset,’ said Milo, walking to the podium.

‘It should be,’ was the reply; ‘we’ve been practicing since the world began.’ And, reaching down, the speaker picked Milo off the ground and set him on the music stand. ‘I am Chroma the Great,’ he continued, gesturing broadly with his hands, ‘conductor of color, maestro of pigment, and director of the entire spectrum.’

‘Do you play all day long?’ asked Milo when he had introduced himself.

‘Ah yes, all day, every day,’ he sang out, then pirouetted gracefully around the platform. ‘I rest only at night, and even then they play on.’

‘What would happen if you stopped?’ asked Milo, who didn’t quite believe that color happened that way.

‘See for yourself!’ roared Chroma, and he raised both hands high over his head. Immediately the instruments that were playing stopped, and at once all color vanished. The world looked like an enormous coloring book that had never been used. Everything appeared in simple black outlines, and it looked as if someone with a set of paints the size of a house and a brush as wide could stay happily occupied for years. Then Chroma lowered his arms. The instruments began again and the color returned.

‘You see what a dull place the world would be without color?’ he said”(p. 124-125)

I like this passage because it not only seems strange and stands out, but it also teaches Milo as well as the reader the importance of something we usually forget we need unless it was taken away. It is really creative and describes every little piece of the scenario extremely well giving us a wonderful image of what is happening while still giving us the ability to imagine our own spin on what it looks like through our expectations. I personally give this book a 10/10 for how amazing it is.


Cooper Navin

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1 thought on “Cooper’s Letter Essay #2: The Phantom Tollbooth

  1. Cooper,
    It’s too bad you didn’t receive any peer feedback because I really wanted not only for others to read your letter-essay but also for you to receive the positive feedback you deserved. This was one of the best letter-essays I’ve read in a while, and the fact that it’s only your second one speaks to both your ability to summarize and reflect on a novel, but also your enthusiasm for it. I’m glad you loved the book. Please recommend it to others.
    Mr. Jockers

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