The Phantom Tollbooth is a children's book written in 1961 by Norton Juster, an architect with a passion for planning, order, and, especially, maps. Basing the main character, Milo, on himself, Juster created an adventure story filled with philosophy, mathematics, and clever wordplay disguised as a fantastical tale of heroism and bravery where the child is the hero and the adults are forever in his debt. By making concepts such as boredom, jumping to conclusions, and color into actual people or places, Juster teaches his readers the importance of being interested in everything because one never knows when it might be useful.
Juster has mentioned several things that went into the book’s conception and writing. First, he submitted a grant to do a children’s book on urban aesthetics but found himself weary of the task. One day at Fire Island beach, where he was vacationing with friends, taking a break from the project, he decided to direct his attention to a little story germinating in his mind – the story of Milo, a bored kid, and his adventures in knowledge. Second, Juster was inspired by an event that took place a few days prior to his beach trip: a ten-year-old boy sat down next to Juster in a restaurant and asked him what the biggest number in the world was. Juster told him to think of the biggest number he knew and then to add one to it. The game continued back and forth until the boy left and Juster began to remember what it was like to be a child with so many burning questions and confusion about words and numbers. He also remembered feeling annoyed by having to study so many things that seemed irrelevant to him as a child and thus decided to write a short story about a child's confrontation with numbers and words. Finally, he stated that he was also inspired to write the book so he could have a map in it like the "Swallows and Amazons" books by Arthur Ransome that he has loved so much as a child.
Juster was renting a small apartment in Brooklyn in the 1960s due to his Navy allowance, and befriended Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist and screenwriter who also resided there. Feiffer remembered hearing his friend pacing at night above him, and when he confronted him on it he learned about the manuscript. Feiffer loved it and encouraged Juster, who from that point forward showed him the latest pages. Feiffer began to haphazardly illustrate, but it was not an official agreement that he’d illustrate the book from the beginning. In an interview Juster stated that he wrote the book from a variety of angles, focusing on different episodes at a time. When he was about 50 pages in, he submitted it to Random House and it was slated for publication.
The book was well-received upon its publication. In the New York Tribune, John Crosby wrote, “In a world which 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 witch.” Jane Jacobs also lauded the work in The Village Voice. However, some critics claimed it was not a children’s book because the vocabulary was beyond them. Others firmly believed that fantasy was bad for children because it disoriented and distracted them. It was adapted into a film that was popular but not particularly admired by Juster, who thought it was too slavishly devoted to the text.
The Phantom Tollbooth only grew in popularity over time, especially after an effusive New Yorker review. It became a mainstay of children’s literature, a bestseller, and the epitome of intelligent, witty fantasy for young people.