Milo is a little boy who never knows what to do with himself. If he’s in school, he wants to be at home; when he’s home, he wants to be out. Nothing interests him, and he believes almost everything is a waste of time. One day, walking home from school, he laments that there’s no point to learning. Problems are “useless,” and he’ll never need to know where Ethiopia is. No one sets him straight, so he believes learning is a huge waste of time. As he hurries along, he thinks that there’s nothing to do—he doesn’t want to do or see anything. He sighs so loudly that he startles a sparrow nearby, and the bird flies home to its family.
Young Milo is totally lost. He can’t find anything to amuse himself, he doesn’t understand why he even has to go to school, and life in general seems like a waste. Interestingly, though, the narrator doesn’t blame Milo for this. Instead, the narrator underhandedly blames Milo’s teachers and caregivers for not setting him straight and teaching him that life and learning are interesting.
Milo hurries through town, not even noticing the buildings and shops around him. Once at his apartment building, the elevator takes him to the eighth floor, where he hurries into his apartment and then his room. Milo flops on his bed and looks at all his things. His room is full of toys and books that he doesn’t care to look at or play with—he can’t remember the last time he used his little electric car.
Because readers are told what Milo is passing and where he’s going, this passage creates the impression that even with this distant narration style, readers know more about Milo’s world than Milo does because he’s so disinterested in his surroundings. His room is piled high with toys and books that he doesn’t care about, which is a nod to the rise of consumerism in the mid-20th century (when the book is set).
But, as Milo looks around, he notices something he’s never seen before. It’s a huge package and a strange shape. There’s a note attached that reads: “FOR MILO, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME.” Milo is confused and excited, since he can’t figure out why he got it. (Christmas is months away, and he hasn’t even been all that good this year.) He decides it’d be rude to send it back, so he begins to unpack the box. There’s an envelope and inside, and the note in it reads that Milo has received “ONE GENUINE TURNPIKE TOLLBOOTH.” It’s supposedly easy to put together at home, and it’s for people who have “never traveled in lands beyond.”
The tollbooth package is far too interesting for Milo to pass up opening, which shows that Milo can be engaged when something unusual disrupts the monotony of his days (though his excitement is still lukewarm). Milo also shows here that he’s a people pleaser, since it’d be rude to send back the box—put another way, he’s not terribly interested in the tollbooth, but he is interested in being polite to the sender.
Milo continues to read. The package supposedly contains a tollbooth, directions to put it together, three signs, coins, a map, and a rulebook. Milo follows the instructions and quickly puts the tollbooth together. It’s smaller than a real one and purple, and Milo mutters that it’s impractical—there’s no highway to go with it. But since Milo is bored, he sets up the signs, unfolds the map, and studies it. He hasn’t heard of any of the places on it, so he closes his eyes and stabs at the map. Since he has nothing else to do, he decides to visit the place he’s stabbed, Dictionopolis. Milo gets in his electric car, pays the toll, and hopes that this game will be interesting.
Milo might not be very engaged or curious, but he does show here that he’s humorously practical. And his practicality here, ironically, makes him somewhat impolite, as grousing that the tollbooth didn’t come with a highway reads as entitled and assuming. But as Milo moves forward, it’s important to establish him as sensible and practical, as he’s going someplace where practicality isn’t the norm.