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The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth | Chapter 1 : Milo | Summary



Milo never knows "what to do with himself." He is always bored and "nothing really interests him." Milo thinks that learning is a waste of time and nothing in the world is "worth seeing." He runs home from school without noticing his surroundings. When he enters his bedroom, he looks "glumly at all the things he own[s]" but never uses, including unread books and neglected toys. Suddenly, a large package catches his eye. Attached to it is an envelope that says, "For Milo, who has plenty of time." The package contains "one genuine turnpike tollbooth" that is to be used "BY THOSE WHO HAVE NEVER TRAVELED IN LANDS BEYOND."

Milo follows the assembly instructions and looks at the colorful map that comes with the tollbooth. The names of the places indicated on the map sound strange to him. He closes his eyes and points to "Dictionopolis" as his first destination. He hops in his electric toy car, puts a coin in the tollbooth, and begins his adventure.


Milo is depicted in Jules Feiffer's illustrations as a wide-eyed boy in a dark shirt. Norton Juster's writing is filled with clever wordplay, puns, and humor, and he uses these devices to introduce his main character. At the beginning of the book, he plays with the words "in" and "out," and "coming" and "going." In school Milo "longed to be out and when he was out he longed to be in." Juster's humor is apparent when he explains that Milo "was never anxious to be where he was going" though he "liked to get there as quickly as possible." He also uses opposites and contrasts, describing how to Milo the world is "large" yet feels "so small and empty," and the package in Milo's room is "not quite square" but "definitely not round."

The strangeness of the unexpected gift sets up a mysterious beginning for Milo's fantastic car trip. Milo seems indifferent to his surroundings and shows no interest in anything. Childhood boredom may be a universal experience, but at the story's opening, this indifference defines Milo's character to an almost absurd degree. Juster's exaggeration of these common feelings makes it hard for readers not to see silliness in letting oneself be bored, at least for any length of time. However, the appearance of the tollbooth piques Milo's curiosity, and he is willing to give it a try.

Feiffer includes an illustration of the map Milo finds with the tollbooth, featuring all of the places through which Milo will travel on his journey. The map also notes sites that are beyond its scope, such as "other places," "more land," and "more sea," piquing readers' interest about what other adventures could be possible. However, Feiffer does not include an illustration of Milo actually driving his car through the tollbooth. This omission is mentioned in a New Yorker article commemorating the book's 50th anniversary. The writer points out that "there is not a single image of Milo passing through a tollbooth." The tollbooth is something that Milo has imagined, and it is left to the imagination of the reader to visualize Milo driving from the reality of his bedroom into the fantasy world that lies beyond it.

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