The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth

by

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth: Chapter 9. It’s All in How You Look at Things Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s late afternoon in the unknown lands between Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. Before long, they reach a dense forest and find a sign announcing that this is the scenic route; the “point of view” is straight ahead. Milo can’t see anything but trees, but eventually, the trees end, and he can see over a cliff into a green valley. He stops the car and remarks that it’s beautiful, but another voice says that depends on how you look at things. Milo turns and sees a boy his age who’s floating three feet off the ground. The boy says that if you like deserts, you might not like this view. He also notes that if Christmas trees were people and people were Christmas trees, people would be chopped down and decorated every year. The boy admits this has nothing to do with the subject at hand—but it’s interesting, nonetheless.
This boy literally sees things from a very different perspective than Milo does, given his height. But on a more figurative level, he seems to also make an effort to see things from many other people’s perspectives. This can be a useful exercise, as realizing that not everyone sees things the exact same way helps a person develop empathy. But particularly with his Christmas tree thought exercise, he also shows that experimenting with different perspectives can make life more fun and interesting. Indeed, Juster, the author, experimented with a new perspective by writing a story about a young boy when he himself was an adult.
Themes
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Language, Wordplay, Fun, and Logic Theme Icon
Milo asks the boy how he’s standing so high. In return, the boy asks how old Milo is, since he’s standing on the ground. The boy explains that in his family, kids are born in the air, at the level they’ll be when they’re adults, and they grow to the ground. (Some people never reach the ground no matter their age.) Milo explains that his family is the opposite; nobody knows how tall they’ll be until they’re done growing. The boy laughs and deems this silly—if your head’s height keeps changing, you’ll always be seeing things differently as you grow. Milo has never considered this. Further, the boy continues, you can’t get hurt falling or scuff your shoes if you’re high above the ground.
To this boy, it’s a good thing to never have to develop a new perspective. It means he never has to change—though he clearly doesn’t have any problem engaging in thought experiments that may cause him to change his point of view. But for Milo, though he hasn’t thought about it much before, it’s just a given that he’s going to change as he grows—not just because he’s going to get taller, but because he’s going to have experiences that influence how he sees the world. Most importantly, this passage encourages Milo to see that not everyone shares his perspective, and that this is something he should be aware of. 
Themes
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Related Quotes
The boy says there are still lots of other ways to look at things. As an example, he tells Milo exactly what Milo had for breakfast. He tells Tock that Tock is worried about people wasting time, and he tells the Humbug that the Humbug is almost never right—if he’s right, it's usually an accident. Tock and Milo are impressed. The boy introduces himself as Alec Bings. He sees through things, which means that he can see what’s inside, around, or behind anything else—he just can’t see what’s right in front of him. Alec admits it’s a bit inconvenient, but his family helps out. His father “sees to things,” while his mother “looks after things.” His little sister, Alice, “sees under things,” and if she can’t see under something, she overlooks it.
Alec’s ability to see through things might provide him with some interesting insights, but he acknowledges that it’s not without its difficulties. Indeed, he needs his family to help make sure that he’s seeing things from a variety of perspectives. Milo seemed pretty isolated in his everyday life, so this may be a lesson to him to reach out and form connections with others. Alec’s note that Alice overlooks things she can’t see under is funny, because it means she just ignores those things—but this pun is lost on Milo, since he still doesn’t have the language skills to see the humor.
Themes
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Milo asks if he could possibly see something from up high. Alec says he can—if Milo tries to look at the world as adults do. Milo tries and, sure enough, his feet lift up. He crashes down quickly and says he’ll continue to look at things as a child, since it’s not as far to fall. Alec deems this wise, since everyone needs their own point of view. Tock is confused; he thought this was everyone’s Point of View. But Alec says each person has their own point of view, and it’s impossible to always see someone else’s point of view. He points out that to an ant, a bucket of water looks like an ocean, while a fish sees it as home. At this, Alec offers to show the newcomers the forest. He flies away, Milo in pursuit.
Alec doesn’t just see things from a physically taller perspective—he also sees the world as an adult does, despite being a child. Milo, as a child, has to try very hard to see things from this point of view, though it is possible for him to maintain for short stints. This suggests that seeing things from other perspectives is something one has to practice—unless one is Alec Bings, it’s not second nature to do so. When even Tock learns something here, it also shows that everyone—no matter how wise—is always learning.
Themes
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Milo asks if everyone here grows down like Alec. Alec says that occasionally, someone’s feet start to grow toward the sky. They try to discourage that. Oddly, those people usually grow 10 times as big as normal people, and supposedly they walk in the stars.
Alec is probably referring to people with big, fantastical dreams—perhaps even future celebrities—when he mentions the people growing toward the sky. Celebrities are often portrayed as larger-than-life.
Themes
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