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The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth | Chapter 16 : A Very Dirty Bird | Summary



Milo climbs up a stairway that becomes endless. The more he climbs, the more there is to go, and he never gets close to the top. He sees half of a boy standing on the steps, divided right down the middle. The boy corrects him and says that he is a little more than one half. He explains that he comes from the typical family with 2.58 children, and he is the .58. The boy gives Milo a lesson on the importance of averages. Milo realizes that others know more than he does, and he says he will "have to do a lot better." He feels discouraged, acknowledging that "everything in Digitopolis is much too difficult for me." Milo wonders why "even the things which are correct just don't seem to be right?"

The Mathemagician is still angry at his brother, and he shows Milo a letter filled with numbers that he had sent to Azaz. Milo responds by saying that maybe King Azaz did not understand the numbers. The Mathemagician gets angry, shouting that "everyone understands numbers" because they mean the same thing in all languages. Tock tells the king that they would like to rescue Rhyme and Reason. When he finds out that his brother has approved of this idea, the Mathemagician says he does not approve. Milo tells the king that if they both agree to disagree with each other, then they are actually in agreement. The king yells that he has been tricked, but he agrees to accept defeat and shows Milo the way to travel. He gives Milo the gifts he has received on the way, along with a magic staff—a shining pencil. He tells him to "use it well and there is nothing it cannot do for you."

Milo, Tock, and Humbug start their trek up the path, and the higher they go, the darker it gets. They sense "shadows and evil intentions" oozing from the cliffs, and the wind is thick and heavy as it "shrieked through the rocks." Milo suggests that they wait until morning, but a large, dirty bird appears and says, "they'll be mourning for you soon enough." The more Milo tries to explain things, the more the bird confuses things and interrupts him. The bird says it's his job to "take the words right out of your mouth." The bird says that he is the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, and he comes from a place called Context. When he flies off suddenly, Milo yells, "Wait!" and the bird responds, "thirty-four pounds." The three climb up the trail and see an elegant gentleman in a dark suit standing against a tree. The man has no face. He asks them to do three tasks: move a pile of sand with tweezers, empty a well with an eye dropper, and dig a hole with a needle. They work for hours and hours and hours.


It is a common statistic to say that families have 2.58 children—that is, the average number of children per family is between two and three. But Juster creates an absurd situation by offering a literal depiction of a saying or phrase that is commonly understood in a figurative way. One can imagine two children, or three children, but 2.58 children? Here readers are introduced to .58 of a boy.

The expression "you dirty bird" is also here represented literally. It is comic to see an actual "dirty bird" depicted. Also, he cleverly plays on the homophones "morning" and "mourning." The bird is named "Wordsnatcher," and the expression to "take words out of your mouth" is used literally to provide a laugh and dramatize deliberate misinterpretation in the absence of context. When Milo yells "Wait!" the bird responds with its actual weight—another clever instance of wordplay.

Milo is discouraged when he realizes that he needs to know more about math. He knows that he needs to use that feeling of discouragement to learn more about math and become a better math student. His self-understanding and interest in the world around him continues to grow.

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