Timothee de Fombelle's Toby Alone
Children's book review by Tracey Fortkamp
Ages 9 and older
A unique tale about a tiny civilization that inhabits an oak tree
Toby Lolness is a little guy with a big heart and an even bigger problem. Standing just 1 ½ millimeters tall - Toby’s life is in danger, his parents are being held prisoner, and to make matters worse, his world is on the brink of destruction.
Toby lives in the tree top of a very large oak tree or The Tree as its inhabitants refer to it. The Tree is a place where villages are carved into the trunk and built onto branches, and the citizens make their living using the natural resources provided by the tree. Toby’s father is a scientist whose life’s work has been to makes discoveries about The Tree, in order to help the inhabitants to better understand their world.
“Father’s goal was to prove that The Tree was alive – that the sap is its blood and that we are passengers in this living world.” Eventually, Toby’s father reveals the importance of the sap to the community by demonstrating that it can provide the energy needed to power a toy when manipulated correctly. Having proven that the sap is the lifeline of the tree, Toby’s father warns that further development of The Tree could risk the sap and therefore, potentially kill their home.
Instead of realizing how vital this breakthrough is to The Tree’s survival and their own, the community, led by corrupt business tycoon, Joe Mitch, wants to exploit the sap and Toby’s father’s knowledge for their own benefit (using the sap to create the energy needed to build more housing developments). When Toby’s father refuses to share his secret, he and his family are exiled from the tree top and sent to live in the lower branches.
Life in the lower branches turns out to be better than Toby anticipated. Although his family must start over, he is enthralled by the landscape and spends much of his time exploring. He also makes a great friend, Elisha Lee, and they spend time swimming and enjoying their surroundings. He and his family fall into a routine and greatly enjoy their time in the lower branches.
Six years in the lower branches have passed by quickly when Toby and his family suddenly find themselves traveling back to the tree top on family business. The family is shocked by the dramatic changes in The Tree in the time they have been gone. Housing is built even deeper into the trunk and every inch of wood seems to be developed. Much of the leaf cover has disappeared and the community is unfriendly. An atmosphere of apprehension is evident everywhere.
Joe Mitch, the business tycoon responsible for Toby’s family’s exile, is behind the changes and has used fear and a totalitarian mentality to keep The Tree’s inhabitants compliant to his whims. During their visit, they are confronted by Mitch and his cronies who insist on knowing the secret of The Tree. Again, Toby’s father refuses and he and his wife are sent to prison to await execution.
Although, Toby manages to escape, he knows that he is being chased by Mitch’s men and the community that he once loved. Running for his life, Toby has one thrilling adventure after another. From outsmarting Joe’s men at a weevil farm and escaping from a black widow to surviving winter trapped in a cave and orchestrating a risky prison break.
Timothee de Fombelle, noted French playwright, has created a fun, fast-paced, politically charged adventure. Told from Toby’s perspective, through a series of flashbacks, Toby Alone flows beautifully and is full of humor. Toby is completely endearing - strong and vulnerable at the same time - it is easy to root for him to prevail. Joe Mitch and his cronies are a convincing reference to “big business” and provide the right amount of comic relief.
The Tree offers an interesting backdrop for the story and De Fombelle’s creative descriptions bring the community that lives in The Tree to life. From a prison made out of a mistletoe ball to a plantation where they make leaf flour, in many ways The Tree proves to be a central character in the story. In addition, Francois Place’s pen and ink drawings significantly enhance the story, giving the reader a whimsical look into Toby’s world.
Toby Alone is also detailed commentary on global warming and the corruption of big business. Readers will quickly notice the parallel between The Tree and our own world. When Toby’s father references an expanding hole in the Tree’s leaves, “The Tree’s climate warming up, the risk of flooding, the gullies being formed in the bark – these are real dangers,” readers will hear the echo of today’s scientists as they warn of our impact on the earth.
Toby Alone is a truly delightful story full of teachable moments and timely lessons. A great read for middle grade students, this book would also be very appropriate as a read aloud in a classroom setting. With an unexpected cliffhanger at the end, readers will be greatly anticipating the sequel, Toby and the Secrets of the Tree.
Read more of Tracey's book reviews.
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