Toby Alone, by Timothee de Fombelle

One of the more memorable books I read last fall as a panelist for the Cybils Awards was Toby Alone, by Timothee de Fombelle (Candlewick, 2010, middle grade on up, translated from the French, 400 pages). I liked it very much indeed, but for reasons unclear to me I never reviewed it. Now two things have led to me re-visiting it. The sequel, Toby and the Secrets of the Tree, is being released in the US this August (it came out in 2009 in the UK), and I want to read it. And secondly, on a purely practical level, I am trying really really hard to clear my review decks during this Bloggiesta Weekend. So without further ado, here are my thoughts.

For young Toby, just 1 and half millimeters tall, the Tree is the world. More than just a home to Toby and all his people, whose various settlements are scattered throughout its trunk and branches, it is a vast and many faceted place whose secrets no-one truly understands. But Toby's father, a writer and scientist, has come up with a hypothesis that rocks this world to its roots--the Tree, he suggests, might be alive! And the greedy developers profiting from the resources it offers might be causing it irreparable harm...

Toby's father refuse to lend his knowledge and skill to the schemes of those advocating a technological revolution based on tree sap exploitation. In consequence, Toby's family is exiled to the lower branches of the tree. And Toby gradually learns that he must stand up against the profiteers--even though the consequences are exile, or worse.

The world in the tree is a wonderfully diverting one--sometimes I disagreed with the author about the mechanics of scale, but all in all I found the intricate details of tiny life in a tree fascinating. But it's more than just an eco-adventure given interest by the minutia of its descriptions--it approaches the heavy territory of Allegory, with the analogy to our treatment of the earth rather front and center.

Toby's adventures are not light-hearted gathering-nuts-in-may--there's betrayal, violence, unkindness, prejudice. There's pretty powerful (even disturbing) stuff here, and I don't think it's suitable for every young child. I myself found it tremendously gripping, and managed not to be too disturbed. I read it last fall, and I confess I had to revisit it more than a little to recall the actual plot elements. But I had not forgotten at all the state of mind the book inspired--the non-blinkingness of my eyes as the pages turned, the way I kept thinking about it while raking leaves....

Here are some more reviews, at 100 Scope Notes, Eva's Book Addiction, and Books4yourkids

Reviews of Toby and the Secrets of the Tree have started showing up--at M/C reviews, at Mini Book Bytes, and Sugar Lover Book Reviews. I'll be looking out for it myself!

(disclaimer: review copy gratefully received from the publisher, Candlewick, as part of the Cybils process)


  1. Disturbing, yes. I found the descriptions of the Tree very beautiful, and the creation of the different cultures and attitudes was fascinating. The scale issues really bothered me, though. Sometimes Toby seemed as big as a Borrower and other times almost like a microbe. But what really, really upset me was the willingness of Toby and his friend to torture other people and to let that awful little girl carry the consequences. I lost any interest in Toby's quest right there. I guess I am not very good a real politik.

  2. Ummmm (an agreeing, thoughtful ummmm)...I'm surprised it didn't bother me more, because generally things do. I wonder if perhaps the many moments of forced suspension of disbelief (when one has to stop and thing about the scale of things) kept me from the sort of emotional involvement that would have led to me being bothered.

  3. Perhaps so. I really loved the bit when Toby is living down the bottom of the tree and it's a long journey to visit the neighbours. Oddly enough, really reminded me of some of the Laura Ingalls books. I loved that 'how life is lived in this place' part of the book.


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