The Borrowers, by English author Mary Norton, was first published in 1952. The book is the first in a series of children’s fantasy novels about tiny people who secretly live in our homes and “borrow” items from humans in order to survive. It was adapted into the animated film “The Secret World of Arrietty” by Studio Ghibli and released in American theaters in 2012.
The members of our family are huge fans of all things Ghibli (except “Tales from Earthsea”, that was just rough), and we did our due diligence to get the most from viewing Arrietty. That meant digging into the source material and hosting bed-time readings to our five year old daughter. Mom (Ginger) and Dad (Lee) had very different feelings about the book.
Presenting: He Said/She Said: The Borrowers.
By Lee Heidel
Disclaimer: I waited until after seeing The Secret World of Arrietty before writing up my own thoughts. As such, I found myself comparing the two, which may be unfair to the book.
To say that The Borrowers was a slow and extremely clunky read would be doing a disservice to my tired, twisted tongue and addled brain which struggled night after night to get through the antique prose of Mary Norton.
I can’t believe this book was published only 50 years ago. I assumed it was from the Victorian era. The vocabulary rendered large blocks of text unassailable by our child (and in many cases, me, the parent). The social and political aspects were equally foreign and remote.
Honestly, I’m not sure how we made it through the first few chapters… where absolutely nothing happened. Things were described in an undecipherable exacting detail that had me begging for each chapter to end. Even when the action did pick up, there was no palpable danger and no pay off for the reader, as it is a painfully open-ended tale.
My major gripes about the book (the vocabulary, phrasing, pacing, circumstances of the boy’s visit and lack of action) were all laudably rectified with the Arrietty movie. The book never addresses why the boy is visiting (from India in the book) other than to say he’s convalescing. There is no life-affirming conversation about his ailment and he often comes across as being a jerk (perhaps a more accurate representation of a 10 year old boy). No Borrower is ever caught in the book and is never in any real peril. The book is also a “story within a story”, which is such a tired cliche.
Don’t get me wrong, the premise of the book was very creative and without it, there would have been no Arrietty anime. It’s sparked quite a bit of creative play and has opened another door to fantasy literature for our daughter. But was it a good book? No, I can’t say that it was. I had high expectations and it failed to deliver on them. I know we’ll be moving to the sequel books soon, as our daughter’s thirst for the world of little people has yet to be quenched.
At least until we get Arrietty on DVD.
Lee Heidel is a web developer living in Savannah, GA. He loves raising a little girl, brewing his own beer and playing the ukulele. Listed in order of importance. You can find him on Twitter @nonaesthetic.
The other day, my daughter and I were looking for some misplaced object when suddenly I stopped, stared at her with wide eyes, and asked in mock amazement, “Do you think the Borrowers took it?”
After a pause in which she briefly considered the possibility, she laughed and said, “No, Mom! The Borrowers aren’t real!”
But it sure is fun to imagine they are real – these harmless, tiny people living under the floorboards, fashioning brushes from carpet hairs, making carpets from blotting paper and using our postage stamps for wall art. I enjoyed the book The Borrowers because the story is so imaginative and interesting. It’s the kind of story that stuck with me, and I’d often find myself looking anew at ordinary objects in my home, wondering how a Borrower might use them. Especially Camille’s dollhouse – oh the possibilities!
However, I wasn’t immediately enthusiastic. In the beginning, the book felt slow and cumbersome. Written more than a half century ago and on the other side of the world, there were many unfamiliar phrases. And if they were unfamiliar to me, they were completely foreign to my five year old. Also, the real action doesn’t begin right away. One of the early chapters was the transcript of a single conversation between the mother and father, discussing all the other family members who used to live in the house and why they moved away. Yawn.
But once the young girl begins to venture out from underneath the floorboards for the first time, the story moves from floundering to fascinating. I was so glad we’d stuck with it. Suddenly the chapters ended with cliffhangers, and my daughter and I enjoyed imagining what happened next, eager to begin another chapter the following night.
And despite the unfamiliar language, there was a melodic quality to the sentences and I enjoyed reading the book aloud. After five years of reading stories to her with short, staccato phrases and simple language, I relished the verbal challenges presented by this book.
I would absolutely recommend this book for children age 10 or older. For younger kids, I think it depends, because you do have to be willing to power through those early chapters to get to the goods. And you have to be ok relying on context to help you muddle through the unfamiliar phrases. But if your child can overcome those obstacles, he or she will be rewarded with an incredible tale of adventure, friendship and perseverance. I’m already looking forward to beginning the next book in the series, The Borrowers Afield.