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The Borrowers by Mary Norton

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Cover art for The Borrowers classic children's book
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Mary Norton's story about Arrietty, a girl about 6-inch tall and the other Borrowers, is a classic children's book. For more than 60 years, independent readers 8 to 12 have delighted in The Borrowers and children 7 and older have enjoyed this fantasy for children as a read aloud.

Who Are the Borrowers?

Borrowers are miniature people who live in hidden places, such as inside walls and under floors, in people's homes. They are called borrowers because they "borrow" everything they want or need from the "human beans" who live there. This includes home furnishings, like spools for tables and needles for kitchen utensils, as well as food.

Are the Borrowers Real?

One of the things that makes The Borrowers so much fun to read aloud and discuss with second to fourth graders is the way in which the story is framed. The book begins with a discussion between a little girl named Kate and Mrs. May, her elderly relative. When Kate complains about losing a crochet hook, Mrs. May suggests it might have been taken by a Borrower and the story of the Borrowers unfolds. Mrs. May tells Kate everything she knows about the Borrowers, from what her brother, who liked to tease her, told her when they were children, to her own experiences. At the end of Mrs. May's story, Kate and Mrs. May discuss whether the story of the Borrowers is true or not. Mrs. May provides reasons why it might be true and reasons why it might not be.

Readers must decide for themselves. Some children love to argue about why there must be Borrowers while others love to share all the reasons there can't be. Whatever they decide, I think many of them will think it would be terrific if Borrowers really existed and some imaginative children will remain full of hope for some time that they will get to meet some Borrowers.

The Story

When they were children, Mrs. May tells Kate, her brother told her about meeting Arrietty and her family while he was convalescing from an illness at the large home of a bed-ridden great-aunt. From that introduction, the story begins. We meet Arrietty and her parents and learn that Borrowers don't think of their borrowing as stealing because they think that the humans who live there exist to serve them. From postage stamps to hang on the wall as pictures to matchboxes to use as beds, the Borrowers cheerfully take what they want.

However, they also fear being discovered by humans and their lives are filled with drama, action and adventure. There's suspense as they seek to furnish their little home under the floor and get enough food for their family while avoiding humans and other dangers, like the cat. Although Arietty, her mother, Homily, and her father, Pod, live in the house, Arrietty is not allowed to leave their little home and explore the house because of the danger.

However, Arrietty is bored and lonely and finally is able, with her mother's help, to convince her father to take her with him when he goes borrowing. While her father is concerned because there is increased danger with a boy staying in the house, he does take her. Without her parents' knowledge, Arrietty meets the boy and begins visiting with him regularly.

When Arrietty's parents find out that a human boy has seen her, they are prepared to take drastic action. However, when the boy gives the Borrowers all kinds of wonderful furniture from an old dollhouse, it seems like everything will be okay. Then, disaster strikes. The Borrowers flee, and the boy never sees them again.

However, Mrs. May says that's not the end of the story because of some things she found when she visited the house the next year that seemed to confirm her brother's story and gave her an idea of what happened to Arrietty and her parents after they left. As the book ends, Mrs. May, Kate and the reader must weigh the evidence and decide whether or not Borrowers exist.

Author Mary Norton

British writer Mary Norton, who was born in London in 1903, had her first book published in 1943. The Borrowers, the first of five books about the tiny people, was published in England in 1952 where it was honored with the annual Library Association Carnegie Medal for outstanding children's literature. It was first published in the United States in 1953 where it also won accolades and was honored as an ALA Distinguished Book. Her other books about the borrowers are The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft, and The Borrowers Avenged. The complete set is available in a boxed set. (Compare prices.) Norton also wrote Bed-Knob and Broomstick. (Sources: Mary Norton's Obituary in The New York Times, 9/3/92, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Illustrators Beth and Joe Krush

The pen and ink line drawings by Beth and Joe Krush provide lots of details without an excess of lines in their sketches. How do they create their illustrations? "We both read the story separately and we both usually have our own ideas about the story," says Joe. "Then we sit down together and arrive at the better of the ideas and try to set up the characters. You cast your characters and you set your stage. It's like being a theater director; the only thing you can't do is give it sound and action." Marriage Of Talents..., Philly.com, July 07, 1988

My Recommendation

The publisher recommends this 180-page book for readers in grades 4-7 or ages 8 and older. I agree. However, I have to admit that I prefer to share The Borrowers as a read aloud for a child or a group of children, ages 7 to 9, for several reasons. Each chapter is a good length and of sufficient interest to be read aloud at bedtime or in the classroom. More importantly, as I mentioned, I've found that the question of whether the Borrowers are real or not is one children greatly enjoy discussing. So many children would love to believe that borrowers exist and they love to dissect the book and talk about the things that suggest that borrowers do exist (missing pins, needles, spools, etc.) and the things that suggest they don't (her brother's teasing, etc.). That said, when I was a child, I read The Borrowers on my own and enjoyed it very much. In either case, whether as a read aloud or a read alone, I highly recommend the book. (Odyssey Classics, Harcourt, Inc., 1998. ISBN: 9780152047375)

The Movie Version of The Borrowers

Don't be alarmed if you don't remember a recent movie named The Borrowers. While based on the Borrowers book series the movie, which came out in February 2012, is named after Arrietty. Get a preview of the movie by watching the movie trailer for The Secret World of Arrietty and learn more about the characters in this gallery of photos. Read the movie review for parents to find out more. If you are interested in buying a copy for for viewing, find out why the about About.com Guide to Kids' TV & Movies says, The Secret World of Arrietty Is One of the Best Kids'/Family Blu-rays of All Time.

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