Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review of Toby Alone by Timothee de Fombell

De Fombelle, Timothee. Toby Alone. Candlewick Press, 2009.
As a child, I read The Borrowers quite a few times. It was clear to me that the room my sister and I shared, with much of the floor covered with all sorts of fascinating and useful little items from Legos to doll clothes to dice, could easily sustain a family or even several families of Borrowers very comfortably. Everything about the book, from its descriptions of hazardous journeys through human rooms to the details of Borrower furnishings and food, made sense, and the illustrations helped me to understand the scale of the Borrowers, who are about 5 inches tall, in relation to the human world.
Toby Alone is also about a society of very tiny people; Toby, a boy, is no more than two centimeters tall. As I read about Toby's family's forced exile from the higher reaches of the Tree to the Low Branches and Toby's hours-long trips to visit his friend Elisha, there was something wrong. All of Toby's adventures remained an abstraction to me because I just couldn't visualize Toby and his world.
The problem was that darn two centimeters. Now, I clearly remember the excitement with which one of my teachers - was it 1st grade? 3rd grade? - passed out painted wooden objects to us. One was an orange cube, a centimeter on all sides and another was a green oblong - a decimeter. These objects heralded a new and glorious system of measurement - the Metric System! We used our centimeter and decimeter to measure various objects and so on, and then all the excitement died away and that was that. But I remember very distinctly the appearance, feel, and even smell of that centimeter cube and so I knew how tall Toby was supposed to be. Not very tall at all.
The problem was that I couldn't quite picture those 2-centimeter-tall folks in their Tree, and the illustrations didn't help much. They are captivating and full of charming, expressive details, but sometimes they are rather misleading in terms of scale - while the illustration of a man riding a giant weevil makes sense (he looks like he's riding an elephant, it's so big), other illustrations aren't so rigorous and seem to portray the Tree folk as being at least several inches tall. Even the fabulous book jacket that unfolds to become a large drawing of the whole Tree with its various communities and landmarks indicated didn't help, as it clearly wasn't to scale. It was a dilemma for me as a reader.
Therefore, I commissioned my younger daughter to draw a 2-cm-high Toby for me and then propped him up in various trees in my house and yard. In the Christmas tree, Toby was waist-deep in thick bristles. In the dwarf Meyer lemon tree outside, there were very few thick branches where Toby and his people could build a home and make a living (although those lemons could come in very handy).
In our Chinese elm, however, there would be plenty of room for an entire society, just as in Toby's Tree. Thick branches would provide wide-open spaces, thinner branches would make wonderful suburbs, and the peeling bark and relatively small, sturdy leaves would lend themselves to a multitude of uses.
So, back to Toby Alone. Now I can visualize much of the story much more clearly, from encounters with insects and birds to the weird foods (black bark juice, butterfly pate) people eat. I still have some big questions - where do things like pianos and file cabinets come from? And considering how vertical trees are, how does Toby get around without a rope? - but sometimes one has to suspend one's disbelief.
Luckily, there's a lot in this book that makes suspension of disbelief well worth the effort. While the structure of the story is sometimes confusing, especially in terms of the timeline, many episodes are compelling. Toby has a double battle - not only must he rescue his parents from the clutches of a government that is under the sway of an evil man named Big Mitch, but he must clear his own name before he is killed or imprisoned by his own people. Oh, and Big Mitch is creating shoddy developments and spearheading a mining operation that is causing ecological and societal havoc. There is also the matter of the demonizing of the Grass People, who live at the base of the Tree and who used to trade with the folks in the Tree but are now being killed or captured to work in the mine. It's all turning into a disaster and only Toby can stop it - if he can stay alive.
It's a long and complicated saga, and it was hard for me to wrap my head around the geography of the Tree, the distances between landmarks, and the sheer implausibility of a tiny piano existing in this world. But - readers who stick with it will become absorbed in Toby's adventures and in the complex society of the Tree and they will be rewarded by the sequel that is sure to come. Recommended for dedicated readers such as those who love Brian Jacques' Redwall series.


  1. Before I read the review I was wondering why my copy didn't have a small toby on it ;)

  2. Oh goodness, Eva--I just revisited this (finally reviewing it) and he isn't two centimeters tall, he's 1.5 millimeters tall! Which makes much more sense.....

  3. Wha...?? How did I manage to get that wrong? That really does change things... although I still don't quite get the scale.

  4. I am reading the book for my "Battle of The Books" and its not my favorite, but its good literature.