11 Whimsical Facts About The Phantom Tollbooth

istock (blank book)
istock (blank book)

Norton Juster’s 1961 tale of a bored boy who travels to a magical land is more than it seems—as its plot enchants, The Phantom Tollbooth also manages to illustrate the joys of learning. The story behind the book's creation is just as fascinating, so we’ve compiled some fun facts for your next journey through the Kingdom of Wisdom.

1. The Phantom Tollbooth is a product of Juster’s procrastination.

After serving three years in the Navy, Juster returned to his hometown of Brooklyn to work as an architect. He received a $5,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to write a children’s book about cities, but overwhelmed by the amount of research it required, decided to take a vacation. Upon returning, Juster’s guilt over his lack of progress on the city book led him to start writing snippets of stories about a little boy named Milo—who happened to be quite similar to a young Juster. As Juster told NPR, “In order to stop thinking about cities, I had to start thinking about something else.”

2. Juster’s childhood synesthesia shaped the book.

Synesthesia is the condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another. It causes the afflicted to inexplicably associate a sound with a specific color, or perhaps a word with a color—the condition manifests differently in each synesthete.

Juster’s synesthesia caused him to associate numbers with colors, and similarly, words and images. Although he eventually grew out of it, the visual blurring of senses is evident in his writing. Juster once noted, “When I start to write I have to create visually, no matter how abstract, no matter how undefined. … It’s not only that I would have been a different writer had I not had that very developed visual sense, I don’t think I would have been a writer at all.”

3. Despite the similarities, Juster wasn't inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between the Kingdom of Wisdom and fantastical worlds like Narnia, the Emerald City, or Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s protagonist Alice is, like Milo, a bored child frustrated with reality; later, they both discover new worlds where “things aren’t always what they seem.” However, Juster’s inspiration came from a different source. The Phantom Tollbooth was heavily influenced by Juster’s father’s love of puns and wordplay, and further shaped by a childhood spent listening to the radio and imagining what could be.

4. A “boy who asked too many questions” inspired Milo.

While struggling with his book on cities, Juster had an interesting encounter with a young boy who asked him, “What is the biggest number there is?” The always-clever Juster replied, “Tell me what you think is the biggest number there is,” and then repeatedly told the boy to add one to that number, leading to a discussion about infinity. Thus, the “boy who asked too many questions” was born.

5. Milo’s watchdog had radio roots.

The character Tock was based on Jim Fairfield from Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, a popular radio show during Juster’s childhood. Tock, the “watchdog,” befriends Milo early in the book and accompanies him on his adventures. Jack Armstrong’s “Uncle Jim” was not a canine, but he did share Tock’s wisdom, courage, and adventurous spirit.

6. The iconic illustrations are the product of a lucky coincidence.

Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist who lived in the same apartment building as Juster, would often hear the author pacing in his apartment as he was working on Tollbooth. Curious, Feiffer asked to see some of Juster’s manuscripts, and soon found himself illustrating scenes from the book. Feiffer sketched his original drawings on flimsy pieces of tracing paper, most of which have now been lost or damaged. Feiffer later remarked, “Had Norton told me he was writing a classic, I would have done the drawings on nicer paper.”

7. Juster and Feiffer fell into a (mostly) playful power struggle.

Juster did most of the cooking for the pair and later joked that if Feiffer wanted to eat, he had to draw. The two got into it constantly: Juster frequently described scenes that were impossible to draw, and Feiffer responded by drawing things the way he wanted. Feiffer, for example, wasn’t good at drawing horses, so he drew the armies of wisdom riding in on cats instead. Despite their creative differences, the two remain good friends today.

8. It was supposed to be a flop …

As Juster told The New Yorker in 2011, the initial sales projections for his collaboration with Feiffer weren’t great. “Everyone said this is not a children’s book, the vocabulary is much too difficult, the wordplay and the punning they will never understand, and anyway fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them.”

9. But The New Yorker saved the day.

A glowing review from The New Yorker critic Emily Maxwell paved the way for the book's success. Maxwell adored it, comparing its themes to John Bunyan’s 17th century classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. She 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.”

10. Juster spent most of his career as an architect, not an author.

Although The Phantom Tollbooth became a classic, Juster wrote only a few more books (the most famous of which is The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics). Instead, he spent most of his working life as an architect. Juster served as a professor of architecture and environmental design at Hampshire College for more than 20 years and even co-founded a small architectural firm in 1970.

11. Juster wanted to demonstrate that learning is a “world we enter.”

In a 2011 installment of NPR’s All Things Considered, Juster shared his motivation for writing the book:

The prevailing wisdom of the time held that learning should be more accessible and less discouraging. The aim was that no child would ever have to confront anything that he or she didn't already know. But my feeling is that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don't know yet—the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40)

- Keurig K-Cafe Special Edition; $190 (save $30)

- Ninja OS301 Foodi 10-in-1 Pressure Cooker and Air Fryer; $125 (save $75)

- Nespresso Vertuo Next Coffee and Espresso Machine by Breville; $120 (save $60)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75)

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $80 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10)

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $16 (save $11)

- HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

- Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31)

- TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

- Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

- Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30)

Video games

Sony

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening; $40 (save $20)

- Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity; $50 (save $10)

- Marvel's Avengers; $25 (save $33)

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- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

- BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

- The Sims 4; $24 (save $20)

- God of Warfor PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

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- Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250)

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- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $335 (save $64)

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Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $120 (save $79)

- Seneo Wireless Charger, 3 in 1 Wireless Charging Station; $16 (save $10)

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

- DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

Headphones and speakers

Beats/Amazon

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- JBL Boombox; $280 (save $120)

Movies and TV

HBO/Amazon

- Game of Thrones: The Complete Series; $115 (save $89)

- Jurassic World 5-Movie Set; $23 (save $37)

- Deadwood: The Complete Series; $42 (save $28)

- Back to the Future Trilogy; $15 (save $21)

Toys and Games

Amazon

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- Exploding Kittens Card Game; $10 (save $10)

- Cards Against Humanity: Hidden Gems Bundle; $14 (save $5)

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- LEGO Ideas Ship in a Bottle 92177 Expert Building Kit; $56 (save $14)

Furniture

Casper/Amazon

- Casper Sleep Element Queen Mattress; $476 (save $119)

- ZINUS Alexis Deluxe Wood Platform Bed Frame; $135 (save $24)

- ROMOON Dresser Organizer with 5 Drawers; $59 (save $11) 

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- Writing Desk by Caffoz; $119 (save $21)

- SPACE Seating Office Support Managers Chair; $112 (save $116)

- Rivet Globe Stick Table Lamp; $53 (save $17)

- Christopher Knight Home Merel Mid-Century Modern Club Chair; $188 (save $10)

- Walker Edison Furniture Industrial Rectangular Coffee Table; $121 (save $48)

Beauty

Haus/Amazon

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- Cliganic USDA Organic Lip Balms Set of Six; $6 (save $4)

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- Native Deodorant for Men and Women Set of Three; $25 (save $11) 

- BAIMEI Rose Quartz Jade Roller & Gua Sha; $14 (save $3)

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- La Roche-Posay Effaclar Purifying Foaming Gel Cleanser; $15 (save $5)

- wet n wild Bretman Rock Shadow Palette; $9 (save $6)

- EltaMD UV Daily Tinted Face Sunscreen Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid; $25 (save $6)

Clothes

Ganni/Amazon

- Ganni Women's Crispy Jacquard Dress; $200 (save $86) 

- The Drop Women's Maya Silky Slip Skirt; $36 (save $9)

- Steve Madden Women's Editor Boot; $80 (save $30)

- adidas Women's Roguera Cross Trainer; $40 (save $25)

- Line & Dot Women's Elizabeth Sweater; $74 (save $18)

- Levi's Men's Sherpa Trucker Jacket; $57 (save $41)

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- Timex Men's Weekender XL 43mm Watch; $32 (save $20)

- Ray-Ban Unisex-Adult Hexagonal Flat Lenses Sunglasses; $108 (save $46) 

- Reebok Men's Flashfilm Train Cross Trainer; $64 (save $16)

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10 Famous Writers’ Houses Worth Visiting

Robert E. Nylund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Robert E. Nylund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A writer’s home is a kind of autobiography, and visiting the place where a great work of literature was written gives you a deeper understanding of both the book and the person who wrote it. Here are some notable writers’ houses to check out.

1. Jack London’s Ranch // Glen Ellen, California

Besides being one of the most successful writers of his day, Call of the Wild author Jack London was also a dedicated rancher. London bought 1400 acres near Sonoma, California, and set up an experimental farm. He planted spineless cacti to feed his livestock, put in grain silos, and built a piggery so grand he called it the “pig palace.” You can visit the house where London lived and died, as well as the ruins of the three-story mansion that burned down just before he was set to move in. (The rock walls still stand in a redwood grove, not far from London's grave.)

2. John Steinbeck’s House // Salinas, California

Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men author Steinbeck grew up in this Victorian home and lived here as an adult in 1934 to care for his ailing mother. During that time, his successful novella The Red Pony was published. A restless child, Steinbeck never seemed comfortable with his middle-class upbringing and empathized with the migrant workers he saw in the vegetable fields around Salinas. The town appeared as the setting in many of his works, most notably East of Eden. Today, the home holds a restaurant located in what used to be Steinbeck’s parlor; the walls are decorated with Steinbeck family photos.

3. Mark Twain’s House // Hartford, Connecticut

Twain spent the happiest years of his life in this house with his wife and three daughters. He wrote seven major works here, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The house, which feels reminiscent of a Mississippi steamboat, cost a great deal of money and contributed to Twain’s financial problems late in life. The interior was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and has more than 10,000 objects from the Victorian era. There’s even a pool table in the study, right by Twain’s writing desk.

4. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s House // Concord, Massachusetts

Emerson lived in this house for 46 years until his death in 1882, and it acted as a transcendentalist headquarters. Visitors like Henry David Thoreau went in and out, sometimes staying in the guest room nicknamed the “Pilgrim’s Chamber.” Emerson wrote his essays Nature and Self-Reliance in a study on the first floor, although his son later said that Emerson’s “real study” was nearby Walden Woods.

5. Emily Dickinson House // Amherst, Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson was known as a recluse whose poetry was largely discovered after her death. But the house where she spent her life is a pleasant and bright one, with big windows and high ceilings. While most of the poet’s activities remain a mystery even today, you can see her bedroom where she wrote many of her nearly 2000 poems.

6. Edith Wharton’s Estate // Lenox, Massachusetts

Edith Wharton was rich. Very rich. The Mount, her palatial home, has 35 rooms, four floors, and acres of lush gardens. Wharton helped design the house according to the principles she laid out in her best-selling book The Decoration of Houses. Her good friend Henry James was a frequent guest. Wharton wrote The House Of Mirth at The Mount, usually working in the morning while lying in bed.

7. Margaret Mitchell’s Apartment // Atlanta, Georgia

The ultimate pilgrimage for Gone With The Wind fans has to be Margaret Mitchell’s house. Mitchell moved into Apartment Number 1 of this building—which she called "The Dump"—as a newlywed in 1925 and lived there for seven years. She worked on her epic novel on a table in the living room alcove that overlooks Crescent Avenue. Few people knew she was writing a book, which she considered a personal project. She worked on it sporadically until it was accepted for publication in 1935, forcing her to finish it up. The novel was a runaway hit.

8. Flannery O'Connor’s Andalusia Farm // Milledgeville, Georgia

Flannery O’Connor wanted to move away from the South, but when she was diagnosed with lupus, she moved to her mother’s dairy farm in 1951 and lived there until her death in 1964 at age 39. Since it was difficult for her to climb stairs, she slept in the downstairs living room, where she also wrote most of her published work. You can still see her manual typewriter and her crutches in the house. The more than 520 acre farm, with its ever-present peacocks, served as the setting for many of her short stories.

9. William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak // Oxford, Mississippi

Few authors are as known for evoking place as Faulkner is for writing about Oxford, Mississippi. Rowan Oak, his home for over 30 years, is where he wrote many of his major works, including Light in August. When Faulkner bought the house, it didn’t have running water or electricity. He spent many afternoons on home improvement projects, wiring the house himself and building the brick terrace outside. In his study, he sometimes wrote his complicated plot structures on the wall, then painted over them when he finished the book. In fact, you can still see the plot for his novel A Fable penciled on the wall right where he left it.

10. Ernest Hemingway’s House // Key West, Florida

Ernest Hemingway lived in this house from the time he married his second wife, Pauline, to when he ran off to Cuba with his third wife, Martha. It was the most productive eight years of his life. He wrote most of his major works in his office, which you could only get to by walking across a bridge that extended from the upstairs bedroom. Almost everything in the house had a story, from the urinal garden fountain to the monastery gate he used as a headboard to the six-toed cats he collected because he thought they were good luck. Today, over 40 cats still live on the estate, all said to be descendants of Hemingway’s original pets.