Tiny characters have a rich history in children’s lit. Stuart Little, The Borrowers, Despereaux, and The Littles have all been keeping it real for the diminutive for quite some time. Hey, even Alice got shrunk down for a bit. It makes sense that kids are drawn to tiny – it brings the world down to a size they can manage. The entire universe? Hard to grasp. A single oak tree? Now you’re talkin’. Toby Alone, originally published in France and translated into 22 languages, is a great example of this type of small-scale world building. It is also a great example of thoughtful, complex storytelling. Be warned – if you pick this book up under the assumption you’re about to read a light-hearted adventure about cute little characters, you’d be assuming wrong. Chock full of betrayal, environmental allegory, and social commentary, Toby Alone is a wonderful first half of a two part saga.
Alone indeed. One and a half millimeters tall and on the run, Toby Lolness cannot trust a soul. The reasons for this manhunt are not immediately clear, but are slowly revealed through flashback. Toby’s parents have been imprisoned due to his father’s refusal to divulge the secret for turning tree sap into fuel. Behind it all is Joe Mitch, a vile opportunist who has parlayed his success running a tree-destroying development company into political power. After Toby eludes his pursuers and finds safe haven with Elisha Lee in the Low Branches, the pair set out to rescue his parents. Things don’t go as planned, however, and Toby finds himself defeated, living among strangers, and trying to forget his past. But a visit from an unexpected guest changes everything, renewing Toby’s mission to save his mother and father, and setting the stage for part two.
Did I mention the flashbacks? Be prepared for a multitude. While I like how Fombelle begins the story on an exciting note and then goes back to slowly add context, a couple of the flashbacks (particularly toward the end) feel a bit like speedbumps on the path to conclusion.
For an astute group, this would make a good classroom read-aloud. With themes at every turn, there’s plenty to discuss. Most of these big ideas can be attributed to Toby’s father, who’s lifelong dedication to studying the tree brings all kinds of controversial theories to light. Is the tree growing? Is there life elsewhere? Are leaves individual plants, or part of the tree? Joe Mitch’s development company also provides the opportunity for a number of environmental comparisons to be drawn.
Toby Alone contains a sense of imagination that will stick with readers, who will marvel at how this tiny, well-realized civilization works. They have food, shelter, roads, and many other recognizable elements of life, but they are created in ways that are entirely unique. Frombelle smartly kept this world close to reality, providing for countless clever adaptations – many of which are given clarity through the intermittent sketched illustrations. Even ordinary tree-related things like bark, leaves, and shade take on whole new meanings when the characters are millimeters tall.
While it can be difficult to fully assess the first half of a larger story, I can judge with certainty whether Toby Alone left me wanting more. It did. And I don’t think I’ll be alone here.
Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.