The Rhyme and Reason of Words and Numbers: The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom TollboothThe Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

“Words and numbers are of equal value, for, in the cloak of knowledge, one is warp and the other woof. It is no more important to count the sands than it is to name the stars.”

Do you consider yourself a Number person or a Word person? Have you noticed that many people prefer one over the other? I consider myself a “word nerd” — I tend to be a grammar cop, I’m a good speller, and I love reading, discussing books, and playing word games. On the other hand, someone who loves math and is good with numbers is often a bad speller and dislikes reading. (For example, they can remember a person’s phone number but not their name! Or like my son, who has managed to memorize 100 decimal places of pi, but would rather eat dirt than be required to memorize a 14-line sonnet!). The Phantom Tollbooth is an allegorical fantasy tale that plays up this rivalry between lovers of numbers and lovers of words.

Milo’s life lacked something, but he didn’t know what. He was bored with everything; nothing interested him, and he didn’t see the point in learning anything. In fact, of all the things that failed to interest him, “he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.” Then one day a mysterious turnpike tollbooth is delivered to his room. The Tollbooth kit includes a map and a book of rules and traffic regulations. Since he has nothing better to do, Milo hops into his little electric car that he hasn’t driven in months, and drives through the booth. He soon discovers that the Tollbooth is a gateway into an imaginary world of words and numbers, color and sound.

Shortly after entering this strange world, Milo gets himself stuck in the Doldrums, “where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes,” and where it is against the law to think. There he meets a Watchdog named Tock, who gets very upset when Milo tells him he is just sitting there to kill time. “KILLING TIME!” he roared. “It’s bad enough wasting time without killing it.” He then advises Milo how to get out of the Doldrums: “Since you got here by not thinking, it seems reasonable to expect that, in order to get out, you must start thinking.” With Tock’s help, Milo realizes, “how much could be accomplished with just a little thought.” And so accompanied by Tock and another companion called the Humbug, Milo makes his way to the city of Dictionopolis, where King Azaz the Unabridged sends him on a mission to defeat the demons of Ignorance and to restore the banished sisters, Rhyme and Reason, to the kingdom. By the time Milo comes to the end of his journey, he has come to realize just how much wonder the world holds to keep a boy interested and busy.

During his adventures in the Land of Wisdom, Milo visits such places as Digitopolis, the Island of Conclusions, the Silent Valley and the Valley of Sound, and the cities of Illusion and Reality. He meets fascinating characters such as the Mathemagician (ruler of Digitopolis), the Spelling Bee, Dr. Dischord, the awful Dynne, and the Soundkeeper, Chroma the Great (conductor of color and director of the entire spectrum!), the Dodecahedron, the Senses Taker, and the Terrible Trivium, “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs.”

The Lands Beyond (Illustration by Jules Feiffer)
The Lands Beyond (Illustration by Jules Feiffer)

Being a word nerd, I love the way Norton Juster uses language in a humorous, fun and creative way, making The Phantom Tollbooth a great tool for vocabulary building; it is chock-full of synonyms and antonyms, alliteration, homonyms, puns (ie. the Whether Man), idioms, and irony. Just as with other allegories, the characters and situations in The Phantom Tollbooth are meant to be more than just entertaining, but to illustrate and reinforce life lessons. Scattered throughout the story are little truisms — brief words of wisdom and advise that can be discussed with young readers. Here are just a few examples:

“Always remember that while it is wrong to use too few [words], it is often far worse to use too many.”

“Expect everything, I always say, and the unexpected never happens.”

“You can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.” Unpleasant sounds are necessary, “for you’d never really know how pleasant one was unless you knew how unpleasant it wasn’t.”

“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between.”

“Every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not.”

“What you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do… So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.

And here’s one that hits a little too close to home: according to the Terrible Trivium, “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.” Ain’t that the truth!

Towards the end of his adventure, the Princesses Rhyme and Reason have these words of instruction and encouragement for Milo:

“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…It’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters…Whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything an everyone else, if even in the tiniest way.”

This book is a great tool for slyly reminding children of some important life principles, without lecturing to them. How many of these things have we as parents told our children over and over?

  • Your actions have consequences.
  • Take time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life.
  • We must be careful how we use our words.
  • There is no try, only do!
  • Once time has been wasted, it can never be gained back again.
  • Always learn from your mistakes.
  • Never be afraid to ask questions.

The Phantom Tollbooth challenges readers to consider how much we take for granted in life, and how much there is to appreciate and learn in the world around us, if we just take the time to notice and engage our minds. Silly situations in the story can be used to stimulate interesting discussions with children. Here are some suggestions:

  • What would the world be like if there were no sounds?
  • What if you could see sounds or hear color?
  • What if you literally had to eat your words? Would they be as pleasant in the mouth  as they are to the ear?
  • What if things that went unnoticed faded and eventually disappeared from sight? What things might disappear from the world?
  • Which is worse – to say too little, or to say too much?
  • What would it be like if we only had words to communicate, but no numbers?

It is difficult to say what ages The Phantom Tollbooth is recommended for. It’s a fun read-aloud and I’ve heard of children as young as age 6 enjoying it. My son read it when he was about 10 (not the pi guy, by the way!), but I don’t think a child much younger than that would be able to appreciate the wit and richness if they were to read it on their own. But for anyone older – adults included – who loves figurative language and wordplay, it is a jewel of pure entertainment.

Butch Patrick in "The Phantom Tollbooth." (Warner Bros. Entertainment) Photo Credit:
Butch Patrick in “The Phantom Tollbooth.” (Warner Bros. Entertainment, 1970)
Photo Credit:
Are you a word nerd? What’s your favorite quote or part of The Phantom Tollbooth?

4 thoughts on “The Rhyme and Reason of Words and Numbers: The Phantom Tollbooth

Share your Thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s