22 June 2009

Book of the Week (19): "Toby Alone" / "Toby and the Secrets of the Tree", by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

These two books are really a single story, divided into two volumes. Written in French, the Toby... books have been translated to 22 languages, which mean that they are hugely popular. It’s not surprising, really. The story follows Toby Lolness who is only half a millimetre tall and lives with his parents in a posh neighbourhood close to the top of a great oak tree until disaster strikes. Toby’s dad, a gifted scientist, refuses to disclose the secret of one of his inventions and the whole family is exiled to the wild and rough lower branches. Toby is upset at first, but then he meets the clever Elisha and they become close friends. Happiness doesn’t last long though, and soon Toby finds himself the most wanted person in the whole of the Tree, pursued by the greedy Joe Mitch and his goons and even by Leo Blue, who used to be his best friend. What is everyone after, and what does it have to do with the mysterious and generally hated Grass People?

The Toby... books are a huge adventure story in miniature size. The Tree is an amazing and dangerous world where mosquitoes can suck your blood dry and weevils are used instead of diggers and bulldozers. A drop of rain can literally drown you and a spiders’ web is bad news indeed. Toby has to navigate his way among all these dangers in order to save everything dear to him, including the Tree itself.

Highly original, shifting quickly between funny and sad, these books have become an instant classic.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Gulliver: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, written a few centuries ago, describe the adventures of the shipwrecked Lemuel Gulliver in a host of strange lands. Some readers may mistake it for a story for young children, but it isn’t. Swift used the inhabitants of lands such as the miniature Lilliput, the giant Brobdingnag, and the flying island of Laputa to criticise and make fun of the celebrities, politicians and fashions of his time. Recently retold by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell, this is a must-read.
  • Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White: ever wondered what happened to the Lilliputians after they met Gulliver? They found refuge in a little island in the middle of an ornamental lake in a dilapidated grand estate in England. Unfortunately, they are discovered by Maria who treats them like dolls and makes them do silly things like fly in a toy airplane. Things take a turn for the worse when Maria’s guardian and her governess conspire to steal her huge fortune and coincidently discover the Lilliputians. Now the little people and the orphaned child have mutual enemies and must unite to fight back.

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