The Phantom Tollbooth was published in September 1961. Its competition among new books for the minds and hearts of children included Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach. The Bronze Bow, set in Biblical times, was newly available, and would bring Elizabeth George Speare her second Newbery Award in three years. Neither publisher nor first-time author expected many sales for The Phantom Tollbooth, but Juster was nevertheless disappointed not to find his work on store shelves. His mother, Minnie, did her part, as her son put it, "terrorizing" bookstore owners into displaying it.
"What a silly system." The boy laughed. "Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things in a different way? Why, when you're fifteen things won't look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again." "I suppose so," replied Milo, for he had never really thought about the matter.The Phantom Tollbooth (meeting the elevated Alec Bings) 
Juster says the book was rescued from the remainders table when Emily Maxwell wrote a strong review of it in The New Yorker. Maxwell wrote, "As Pilgrim's Progress is concerned with the awakening of the sluggardly spirit, The Phantom Tollbooth is concerned with the awakening of the lazy mind." Hers was far from the only positive piece; children's author Ann McGovern reviewed it for The New York Times, writing "Norton Juster's amazing fantasy has something wonderful for anyone old enough to relish the allegorical wisdom of Alice in Wonderland and the pointed whimsy of The Wizard of Oz ". John Crosby wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, "In a world which sometimes seems to have gone mad, it is refreshing to pause and consider for a moment a book for children which contains a character called 'Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Which.' The name of the book is The Phantom Tollbooth and it was written by a bearded elf named Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, who is the cleverest of the young neurotics". Dissenting was the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, which in March 1962 deemed the book an "intensive and extensive fantasy, heavily burdened with contrivance and whimsy".
In 1962, the book was published in Britain. Siriol Hugh-Jones wrote for The Times Literary Supplement, "The Phantom Tollbooth is something every adult seems sure will turn into a modern Alice ... The obvious guess is that the appeal of this sort of writing is directed towards just the sort of adults who derive a perfectly grown-up pleasure from regularly rereading the Alices. As one might expect, it is illustrated by every grown-up's favourite child-like pictures with the built-in sad sophistication, the work of Jules Feiffer." Jennifer Bourdillon reviewed it for The Listener, "This is the story of an imaginary journey, a sort of Pilgrim's Progress of a little boy in his car ... One would hardly have thought from the sound of this that it would have so magnetic an appeal, but the brilliant verbal humour and the weird and wonderful characters (the Dodecahedron. the Watchdog, Faintly Macabre) make it that rare delight, a book which parents and children can share." It reached Australia in 1963; The Canberra Times' reviewer, J.E.B., deemed it memorable, causing readers to quote from it and leaf through its pages again.