A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that while this adventure story looks appealing for younger kids (including map and illustrations), its messages are dark and unapologetic. Issues such as betrayal, cruelty, torture, greed, distrust, societal prejudices, and truth-hiding are clear, though not resolved in this installment. The main character, Toby, is running and fighting for his life throughout the entire book, which feels exhausting, and he meets a multitude of dismal characters.
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What's the story?
Toby lives an idyllic miniature life in a tree (though he doesn't know it's a tree), and he has never been anywhere other than his home branch. All is great until Toby's scientist father makes a discovery that threatens their society's foundational beliefs and the way they live. He argues that the tree is alive, and unless they change thier habits, the tree will die. Neither the governing Council, the citizens, nor the developers like this news, and as a result, Toby and his parents are exiled to the "lower branches" -- a most undesirable place to live. Toby becomes a fugitive when he escapes and tries to free his parents. Along the way Toby runs from friends-turned-foe, finds giant holes in the tree used as work pits, meets strange people from other parts of the tree, discovers the slave-like camps owned by the evil developer Joe Mitch, and learns how to barely survive a world full of fear, hatred, and cruelty.
Is it any good?
Toby Alone is a wild, unending ride. The world of the Tree is well-imagined and described, complete with lakes, bark caves, lichen forests, as well as nefarious political and industrial characters. The illustrations are a nice addition, and the map inside the cover is enjoyable to scour. There are memorable pieces of wisdom, such as, "Fear is what makes you fall," "Beauty sometimes sneaks into the hardest of hearts," and "When you mourn somebody, you also mourn what they didn't give you."
While the plot is fairly simple -- Toby's journey to find and set free his parents -- the twists and turns, myraid characters and motivations, and multiple flashbacks make for a complex and intricate tale. There are more mean and undesirable characters than there are inspirational ones, and this has the bizarre effect of making his world feel one-dimensional, especially since the bad guys are fairly stereotypical. Readers may feel ready for his journey to end long before it does. Hearty readers may enjoy the highly detailed saga but still wonder how the story could end so abruptly.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about mob or group mentality. Some of the characters in this book stop thinking for themselves and go along with the group, even when the group thinking is unfair or cruel. Why do you think this happnens? Is it easier to be an individual thinker or a group thinker? Can you think of characters in books, movies, or TV shows in which the main character stood up for thier own beliefs? Was it hard for them? What was the reaction to them?
Greed and fear are the heart of evil in this story. What have you heard in current news that you could attribute to greed or fear?
Among other things, this story is an eco-allegory. How do you see its plot and message reflected in our own world? How does our media portray the state of our Earth and world? Why do you think there is controversy about it?
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