The NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by NCRCL students and published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions.
Review of Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone
By Eleanor Hamblen
Tobie Lolness, the eponymous hero of Timothée de Fombelle’s Toby Alone, is just one and a half millimetres tall and on a mission to save his parents along with the tree in which they live. This thoroughly enjoyable debut novel is an action-packed adventure story with emotional depth and an ecological message at its core.
The narrative begins in medias res as Toby lies injured and hunted, a fugitive from the miniature community which populate the tree. This exhilarating opening anticipates the pace of the narrative, bounding from episode to episode and interspersed with flashbacks. We learn that Toby’s current predicament is the result of his father’s discovery of a process which harnesses the tree’s energy. Professor Sim Lolness refuses to share the secret of his findings for fear of their potentially devastating effect. This enrages Jo Mitch, the greedy industrialist and dictator, who first banishes the Lolness family to the lower branches and then imprisons them. Having escaped, Toby must act quickly to divert both personal and environmental catastrophe.
In his contribution to the well-established miniature tradition within children’s fantasy Fombelle creates an immersive alternative world which readjusts the reader’s perspective. The tree represents the entire universe of the characters and thus the weevil, previously nothing more than a minor pest in eyes of the reader, is transformed into a monstrous creature which is capable of large-scale environmental destruction. Toby inherits his father’s deep admiration for the tree and a desire to preserve its life-giving force at all costs. Fombelle’s ecological agenda is clear and yet his didactic intentions do not detract from the imaginative delight of the story. Toby Alone strikes a balance between suspenseful action, relieving humour and compelling characterisation. Admittedly some characters, particularly Toby’s enemies, are rather two-dimensional which simplifies Fombelle’s otherwise powerful message. The novel is littered with lyrical descriptions all of which are beautifully rendered in English by Sarah Ardizzone’s skilful translation. The text is accompanied by François Place’s pen and ink illustrations which reinforce the reader’s impression of Fombelle’s intricate world and his use of scale.
Toby Alone speaks not only of ecological awareness but also of love, friendship and courage. The miniature hero’s coming of age is accelerated as he is forced to take on considerable responsibility. The novel ends by reopening the adventure, leaving the reader impatient to turn to its sequel Toby and the Secrets of the Tree. Fombelle’s work has received several awards in France including the 2007 Prix Sorcières in the Romans Juniors category while Ardizzone’s translation was awarded the 2009 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. One would hope that success stories such as this will help to encourage a higher level of translation in children’s publishing in the UK, thus giving young readers access to the literary output of other cultures.
Research area: My dissertation explores representations of nature, ecological messages and miniature communities in French and British children’s fantasy.
Path to Roehampton: BA in French. Extended essay on 17th century fairy tales. I never outgrew children’s books so was delighted to discover I could take an MA in them!
Favourite re-read: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge – my favourite book as a child and it didn’t disappoint the second time round.
Unsung Picture Book: Patrick by Quentin Blake – so joyful! (Mister Magnolia is another favourite)
Unsung Young Adult Novel: William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire trilogy.
Series edited by Erica Gillingham.