HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Toby Tyler, Or Ten Weeks with a Circus
Author: James Otis
Illustrator: William P. Couse
Publisher: MPR Publishing, republished 2013
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Recommended reading level: Ages 10-14
Rating: ***** 5 stars (EXCELLENT)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Otis, James. Toby Tyler, Or Ten Weeks with a Circus (originally published in 1881 by Harper and Brothers, New York City, NY; republished in 1938 by The Saalfield Publishing Company, Akron, OH). Toby Tyler is a ten-year-old orphan who lives in a foster home with Uncle Daniel, Aunt Olive, and several other boys. However, he thinks that he is overworked and under-appreciated, so when the traveling circus comes to the little town of Guilford, Toby decides to run away with it at the invitation of Mr. Job Lord, who sells circus concessions, to work for Mr. Lord. In time, he unhappily finds that his new employer and his partner Mr. Jacobs are cruel taskmasters, and the boy starts to develop plans to return home. Yet, he also makes friends with old Ben Potter, who drives the monkey cage wagon on which Toby rides, Sam and Lily Treat, the circus’s thin man and fat lady, and Ella or Mademoiselle Jeanette, a girl equestrian about his age, as well as an old monkey whom he names Mr. Stubbs.
One night, the monkey wagon breaks down, and all the monkeys escape into a nearby forest. Toby thinks that this would be his best chance to flee too but gets lost in the dark woods. Then he encounters Mr. Stubbs leading all the monkeys back to the wagon, joins them, and is credited with returning them to the circus. The proprietor even gives Mr. Stubbs to Toby as a pet. Does Toby learn any lessons from his ten weeks with the circus? Will he ever make it back home? And what will happen to Mr. Stubbs? James Otis was the pen name of James Otis Kaler. Toby Tyler was the first of Kaler’s 145 books written for children; it was also his best known and most successful. Initially serialized in Harper’s Young People in 1877, it was then published as a book in 1881
Toby Tyler is a “bad boy” novel, intended to teach a lesson about what happens to boys who do bad things. Mr. Stubbs reinforces the consequences of what can occur when a person follows his natural instincts rather than his intellect and conscience, which is a central theme of the novel. The difference between the romance of the circus from the outside and the reality as seen from the inside is graphically portrayed. Though there is nothing objectionable or inappropriate in the original story, which even includes references to church going and faith in God, the Disney film version of 1960 starring Kevin Corcoran, somewhat romanticizes and sanitizes the plot by turning it into more of a light-hearted romp. The original book contains thirty pen and ink drawings by W. A. Rogers. Even though it was written more than 100 years ago, it is still a good story. A sequel, Mr. Stubb’s Brother, was published in 1883.