It’s summer, and time again to switch-up the blogging routine. The plan is to soak up sunshine and birdsong, canoe and kayak at the cabin, and enjoy my kids. Hopefully pick a bunch of berries. Definitely cook a lot of food for the increased numbers around the table!
As I did last summer, I’ll be scaling back to about one post a week. I’m planning to focus on some older favorite novels, and some new-in-2014 picture books. Meanwhile, a few other posts will likely pop up from time to time.
Take advantage of the Title and Subject indexes if you’re looking for summer reading ideas, and don’t forget to go outside and play, okay?!
The Borrowers is a book I’ve meant to recommend for years, but it’s been a bit daunting to review such a classic title and series. Mary Norton won the Carnegie medal (a sort of British Newbery award) for this title back in 1952. Fifty years later, it was chosen as one of the all-time, top ten winners of the Carnegie medal. It is one of the best-loved children’s novels and has been adapted to film numerous times.
Please, though — if you’ve seen the film, realize you have not encountered the book.
Pod, his wife Homily, and their daughter Arriety, are Borrowers — tiny persons living secretly under the floorboards of an English home, expert at borrowing what they need from the resident “human beans” without ever being seen. Their cozy house is well-furnished with postage-stamp-portraits of Queen Victoria and matchbox chests of drawers. Here, Arriety lives in blissful ignorance of the dangers lurking around her in the upstairs world of giants and cats.
One terrible day, however, Pod returns home from a borrowing expedition with the disastrous news that he’s been seen by a little boy. Fearing for their safety, Pod and Homily sit Arriety down and spell out all the facts about this other, dangerous, world. Rather than being frightened, though, Arriety is captivated by the possibilities they describe beyond the walls and “gates, gates, gates…” She’s determined to venture out with her father and learn the craft of borrowing. Eventually, she wins her parents’ permission.
Arriety’s adventurous spirit entices her to see more and more of the fascinating outer world, until the inevitable occurs. One day she meets the human boy, and instead of running the other way, she strikes up a friendship with him. This is all very well for a time, but when Mrs. Driver, the housekeeper, becomes suspicious, it’s exterminators she turns to; not diplomacy. Can the Borrowers survive?
The idea of tiny persons — elves, fairies, hobbits, Borrowers — living their charming, miniature lives right under our noses, is a romantic and compelling notion for most children. Mary Norton’s world is much richer, more historic, and a shade darker than much of the other children’s literature of this genre — John Peterson’s series The Littles, for example, is much lighter fare. Perhaps that’s what makes Norton’s work so enduring. Despite its fanciful nature, this isn’t a whimsical, frivolous tale. It can be thoroughly enjoyed by listeners as young as ages 6 or 7, but there’s plenty to please adult readers as well. The Borrowers’ lives and their world are well-developed, and Norton’s vocabulary is eloquent.
It’s a quaint, Victorian world of “sealing wax and hairpins and drawing pins and thimbles,” complete with a family history that includes the tragic story of Eggletina. The society of Borrowers is made up of proud sorts like the Overmantels, and the salt-of-the-earth types like the Clocks, who “don’t talk fancy grammar and eat anchovy toast” yet still boast a grandfather who could write down the numbers up to fifty-seven.
This world with a history, the clever conscription of commonplace items by the Borrowers and their utterly new uses for these oddments, the endearing personalities of this minute family with their quirky names, the courage required to live in a large world as a small person, all bewitch us and make us care about their fate.
There are four sequels to this first book, each packed with thrilling exploits. All the U.S. editions are illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush with their wonderful, detailed, Victorian-feel, line drawings. I’ve discovered, while writing this blog post, that there’s a prequel as well, published posthumously, entitled Poor Stainless!
Great read-aloud, or an independent read at perhaps a 5th grade reading level. If you’re looking for an audio book for a road trip, the version read by Rowena Cooper is fantastic.
P.S. A list of five picture books inhabited by various tiny people can be found here, if you’re looking for something for the younger set.