Monday, April 12, 2010

Classic Monday: The Borrowers

The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, is about tiny people, no bigger than dollhouse dolls, who "borrow" from the Human Beans. In fact, they're sure that the Human Beans are put on the earth simply to provide for borrowers. But the borrowers in this novel have fallen on hard times -- all the many little folk who used to live in the great country house have had to leave (or 'emigrate,' as one of them puts it) either for lack of food to borrow or because the worst of all fates has befallen them: they've been 'seen.'

All that's left are Pod, his wife Homily, and their daughter Arietty. They manage to eke out a living on scraps from the kitchen and other things they scavenge from the rest of the house, all the while avoiding the Human Beans. Until one day when Pod, on a borrowing mission upstairs, is 'seen' by an unexpected house guest -- a boy, the owner's nephew, who has been sent into the country to recuperate from an illness.

Fearful that their lives will be up-ended beyond recall, Pod and Homily finally tell Arietty, who is 12, about borrowing, the Human Beans, the whole world above their little hidey-hole under the floor in the kitchen. Arietty, tired of living underground where it's always dark, begs to be allowed to go borrowing. Her parents at first refuse: girls don't borrow (the story, after all, takes place at the end of the Victorian period), but finally they relent because, they realize, if anything were to happen to them, Arietty would be quite alone and unable to take care of herself.

On her first foray into the world upstairs, Arietty is herself 'seen' by the same boy, and far from being afraid, she is emboldened and even more curious. What follows is the story of how their relationship does turn everything topsy-turvy and nearly costs the Borrowers their lives.

There is an implication in the book that some of the Human Beans over indulge in alcohol -- this is how they explain away the sightings of the little people. It's glancingly handled, and went right over my 8 year old's head, but it's there. Most of the characters who are supposed to be drinking too heavily (and thus seeing tiny people where they shouldn't) are fairly unappealing people -- an their supposed drinking is also treated as a failing, not glorified in any way.

This is a great book for a read-aloud. The language is a little more formal than kids will be used to -- a product of an earlier era, but easy enough for an adult to navigate. Books like this really tune the ear do different rhythms and expose children to different syntax (word order) and sentence structures, all of which build cultural capital which will be important as they move up the grades.

More than that, it's a great story. If your child loved The Littles chapter book series, or has a thing for fairies, give this one a try. Much of the tiny-creature appeal is here as well, but on a more sophisticated level.

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