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Facts about the Phantom Tollbooth


The Phantom Tollbooth, a children’s novel written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, is a spiritual predecessor of Alice in Wonderland that exchanges the world of animals, children’s toys, and crazy logic for a world of words, numbers, and about the same amount of crazy logic. Milo is a young, bored boy who travels to another land via the titular tollbooth to embark on an adventure to rescue the princesses of Rhyme and Reason from banishment while learning lessons about how interesting the world can really be. It also comes with a level of stealth puns and wordplay that makes it just as rereadable as Alice in Wonderland. Witty, wordplay-packed kid’s novels are one of my favorite genres, and so I’ve been reading about Juster and the Tollbooth. Here are a few fun facts I found out.

The Terrible Trivium

The Terrible Trivium

1. The Phantom Tollbooth was Juster’s first fiction book. He was an architect. Technically, he still is. He’s just also a writer.

2. Juster’s second book was a short story about a line vying with a squiggle for the romantic affection of a dot, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics. This revealed Juster’s areas of expertise: mathematics and puns. (The line, shunned at the beginning, becomes very weary, drawn, and on edge. The moral at the end? To the vector belong the spoils.) Here’s a link to a video of this story, animated by Chuck Jones. Even the youtube comments are puns: “A true dot, aka a point, ideally has no dimensions at all, no height, no width, and most of all, no depth, so of course she’s shallow.”

3. From TV Tropes:

“The origin of the book was that Juster had gotten a grant to write a nonfiction book on architecture but he had an idea for a story that he had to get out of his head. The text describing the cities of Reality and Illusion are the only surviving bits of what he wrote before he got sidetracked (and sidetracking you from what you’re supposed to be doing is what the Terrible Trivium does). He reportedly has tried to pay back the grant several times, but can’t find anyone who will acknowledge it.”

4. “Feiffer drew the book’s pictures because he happened to be living in the same apartment building as Juster at the time of the book’s writing.”

5. “In the book, the Whether Man is a portrait/caricature of Juster, evidently revenge for including the Triple Demons of Compromise.” Why would an illustrator be upset about needing to draw the characters of the Triple Demons? Their description in the book. One is tall and thin, one is short and fat, and the third is “exactly like the other two.”

A watchdog.

A watchdog.

6. Major influences: Juster’s father’s puns and the Marx Brothers films.

7. A remake of the Tollbooth ’70 animated film is currently in development at Warner Bros. Or in development hell, given that it’s been three years with no more information despite the film’s proposed 2013 release date.

8. A documentary about the book does, however, seem to be coming along. Here’s a remarkably entertaining trailer for it.

In it, Norton makes a joke about his pact to write a new book with Feiffer every 50 years. He fulfilled it with The Odious Ogre, but it’s really not the same thing. It needs to be longer, and more Phantom Tollbooth-y to satisfy me. Oh well. You can’t improve on the classics, after all.


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