Toby Alone by Timothee de Fombelle

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Toby Alone by Timothee de Fombelle

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Our world in miniature in an oak tree is the setting for this allegory which looks at the ills of our time - including climate change, the fear of terrorism and gangsterism. Suitable for the older confident reader and all teens - but every adult should read it too. We can't recommend this book highly enough - it's an instant classic.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Walker Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1406313154

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The first thing you need to know is that I don't read fantasy. I can't suspend disbelief and I end up wanting to throw the book at the wall in disgust. This book is pure fantasy.

I loved every word.

Thirteen year old Toby Lolness is one and a half millimetres tall, which isn't big for a boy of his age. See? The book should have left my hands by now. When we first meet him he's hiding in a hole in the bark of the oak tree with just his toes sticking out. He's the most hunted person in the tree.

Toby is the son of Professor Sim Lolness and all his problems stem from one of the professor's discoveries. He's found a way to harness the power of the sap in the tree to create motion. After he's demonstrated to the community what he can do he realises that his invention can be used to exploit and damage the tree. When he refuses to make the details of the invention available the family is threatened, hounded and exiled to the lower branches and far from the more desirable areas in the top of the tree.

It's our world but in miniature and a tremendous story of friendship and betrayal, of greed and how little loyalty matters when there's money to be had. There's political corruption, gangsterism and much, much more. It's a morality tale but delivered with a very light touch.

The characters hold you. Toby makes a wonderful hero and I loved the motif of his growing friendship with Elisha Lee which runs throughout the book. Don't worry, there's no soppy romance to deter anyone. At the other end of the scale you'll love to hate Joe Mitch, the book's 'Mr Big' – in all senses of the word – and in between there's a compelling cast of characters all deftly handled.

The ecological message is strong. Digging is damaging the tree and there's a palpable change in the climate in some parts of the canopy, but there are those who do not care, for whom greed and power comes first. It's told in a way which explains the problem without over-simplification.

Most important to me was the message about terrorism or rather, the fear of it, and the way that this can be used to manipulate and control. The grass people live over the border – the point at which the tree meets the ground. Despite the fact that they have similar problems and live the same lives the threat of what they might be capable of doing is never far from the minds of those who live in the tree. They're regularly reminded of it by those in power.

I can't speak for the veracity of Sarah Ardizzone's translation but this is a very easy, flowing read, despite the fact that it moves back and forth in time. At almost four hundred pages it might seem like a hefty read for a young person but I doubt that it will prove too much for the older confident reader or any teens. Every adult should have their own copy!

The illustrations by François Place are exquisite. They're whimsical but depict and add to the text. I often found myself lingering over the details. The beautifully-produced hardback has a fold-out dust cover which becomes a poster of the tree with all its various areas shown including the (privatised) prison hanging by a strand in a ball of mistletoe. I'm tempted to frame the poster.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I'll even forgive the cliff-hanger which means that I'll have to wait until Spring 2009 to find out what happens to Toby Lolness and Elisha Lee.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy of the book to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy Holes by Louis Sachar.

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Buy Toby Alone by Timothee de Fombelle at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Toby Alone by Timothee de Fombelle at


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Jill said:

OOH! Really? You loved it? HUZZAH.

Sue replied:

I did indeed!