Documentary on 50 years of The Phantom Tollbooth

Beloved kids' book The Phantom Tollbooth turns 50 this year (commemorated by a new edition introduced by Michael Chabon) and an oversubscribed Kickstarter campaign has been funded to produce a documentary about the extraordinary book and the impact it's had over its half-century.

With conversations - and banter - from Norton and Jules, this documentary explores the educational, political and linguistic back-story and lasting impact of “one of the great works of fantasy in American Literature” (Leonard S Marcus, author of The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth).

We follow Norton and Jules as they return to the house in Brooklyn Heights where Norton began writing a little story "to get his mind off of what he had to do." Working as an architect, Norton was awarded a grant for a book on Urban Perception, which he promptly didn't write. Instead, he created Milo. When he showed his notes to his neighbor, a young political cartoonist bent on overthrowing the government, Jules began sketching – and The Phantom Tollbooth was born.

Through the lens of Milo and his adventures, we get to know Norton Juster – an incorrigible punster with a "delight in glorious lunatic linguistic acrobatics" (Maurice Sendak, in his appreciation to the 35th Anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth). Bored as a kid, wondering why he had to learn so many useless facts, Norton is Milo. And we get taken into Norton’s personal Phantom Tollbooth: where his imagination gets him in trouble for demoralizing the Navy battalion with his drawings of elves; where his friendship with Jane Jacobs and her critique of American cities shows up in Digitopolis and Dictionopolis; where “beyond expectations” takes on a personal meaning for Norton’s daughter and granddaughter as they confront their learning disabilities.

The Phantom Tollbooth Turns 50 - A Documentary (via IO9)


    1. Indeed, I’ve been meaning to watch that for a while now; it’s floating around out there.

      It’s Chuck Friggin’ Jones!  It could sell on the merit of that alone.

  1. This book was not part of my childhood, but it was part of my wife’s and she love it.

    My first exposure was reading it to my kids — it’s a great book!

  2. Coincidentally read this 6 months ago, for the first time in about 20 years. Fantastic fun, even better second time round. I’d also completely forgotten about the great illustrations.

  3. The first two BB threads that popped up for me this morning seemed like repeats, so I was wondering what was going on, but thanks to the gods of SEARCH I was able to see there is a slight difference between this thread and the one from April:

    Although the comments are closed there now, I remember having a similar reaction as did Ambiguity and honto above: 1) I had just finished reading the book aloud to my very appreciative kids  — who are much older than that activity makes it sound! — and 2) re-reading it brought back a flood of memories and an even greater enjoyment thanks to having more decades of life experience to draw from.

    Highly recommended reading, whatever your age.

  4. For the interested, Mr. Juster will be appearing at the Free Library of Philadelphia on 11/5 in support of this edition (per the library’s description, the edition also includes ” essays from acclaimed children’s writers including Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, Jeanne Birdsall, and Mo Willems”).

  5. Did not discover this book until an adult and teaching fifth grade. I think it was the one book that all my students loved, even the “non readers”. It is a great source of language and concepts that kids are still grasping, but often only know abstractly. I read it with my own kids when they were younger and they were enthralled by the wacky characters and fantasy of the world that Norton Juster and Jules Fieffer created. Looking forward to the documentary. Long live the Humbug.

  6. Ugh . . . I HATED the movie.

    My mom took my brother, sisters, and some friends. Those of us that had read the book had high hopes. WOW! Not only would we see a movie about this great book, but our love for the book was VALIDATED by it being adapted for the big screen!

    I was eight, maybe nine, but I had this revelation that day, that grown-ups were capable of turning something wonderful into formula crap.

  7. I didn’t love the Chuck Jones movie, but the book has been my childhood favorite all my life, since my eldest sister read it to me when I was four or five.  (Of course, I didn’t get all the puns until years later.)  I named my son Milo because of this book, as I mentioned in the previous threads.

    As much as I adored the Humbug’s roar “A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect” when the Spelling Bee expresses doubt that he, the Humbug, could spell his own name, I ended up philosophically siding with the Bee.  I almost won the San Diego County Spelling Bee back in 1984 or so (damn you, champion Sascha Dublin, for having better ears than mine and properly hearing the word that signaled my downfall: “writhingly”), and the Humbug’s words haunted my regretful dreams for years thereafter.

    I didn’t know there existed an annotated edition.  I shall hasten to purchase both the annotated one, and the new anniversary edition.  Can’t wait to read them to my kids!

  8. I’ve eaten bowl after bowl of subtraction stew, and yet I find that this project is no closer to completion.  In fact I’m merely hungrier. I’m hoping some day I grow tall enough to reach the ground so I can do something about this.

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