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The Borrowers

Last week, I spent some time cleaning up the basement, in anticipation of the arrival of our Spanish exchange student, Javier, who will live with us for nearly three weeks. He will be living in S's bedroom, but she will be living in the basement: hence, the cleaning. Much of that cleaning involved going through the three bookcases that live down there (two very tall ones with 6 shelves each, plus a short one with only three). I now have three boxes of books in the car, which will be donated to local libraries (schools and township), plus I've already given a number of pbs and easy readers to my friend Lisa, the award-winning teacher who invited me for a school visit this spring. Lisa was in charge of running her school's in-service for teachers of first and second grade last week, and after listening to me natter on about poetry being a good tool to reach kids with ADD and other learning issues, and how someone really ought to do a study on it, she asked me for suggestions of poetry books that might supplement the curriculum for first and second grade. So I looked at the units they studied and made a list. And she handed it out. Here's hoping. But man, have I digressed.

During the cleaning, I kept books that I simply could not bear to give away. Signed copies, of course, but also books that I really loved, whether as a kid or a grown up. One of those books was the copy of The Borrowers that I once bought for S, who never read it. M didn't read it either. But man oh man, did I love that book.

I first read The Borrowers when I was in 4th grade. I will guess, therefore, that I was about 8 when I first read the book, which means that I read it before the TV movie with Eddie Albert as the father of the Borrower family came out in 1973. (The feature film, starring John Goodman, struck me as a bastardization of the book, but I haven't re-read the book since I was a kid.) For those of you who haven't read it (are there any?), it is a story about very small people who live beneath the floor boards and between the walls of houses, and who steal "borrow" items from the full-sized people who live there in order to furnish, clothe and feed themselves. A safety pin might become a climbing tool, a thimble might be a stool, etc.

During 4th and 5th grade, I'll bet I read The Borrowers a handful of times, and the three original sequels, The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat and The Borrowers Aloft at varying rates. I think I only read The Borrowers Aloft once, but I know I read Afield and Afloat at least twice each.

And now, to think about the elements that attracted me to the text, which are wound up with the things I recall liking about the book:

1. Rooting for the underdogs: in this case, very small people trying to elude discovery by the "human beans" and/or capture by a variety of animals.
2. A fondness for very small things. Small people, small furniture, etc. I used to have a very small book of poems by Robert Burns that my grandparents brought me from a trip to Scotland, and I really loved it (until, alas, it fell to bits). I still love very small books, by the way. They feel like magic to me.
3. Living in a secret way or place (hideouts, inside walls, whatever).
4. Somewhat related, but a slightly different point: I loved the sense of adventure that was part of the Borrowers' daily lives (not just going about to "borrow" things, but eluding capture/discovery and the way they repurposed items).
5. In yet another related tack, I loved looking at the familiar world from a completely different perspective (that of Very Small People - people who could live inside a teakettle).
6. I liked the romance aspect of some of the later books, involving Spiller and Arriety. Or maybe it didn't exist, but in my mind, it did. Also Spiller? Not exactly an orphan, but close enough. And I really liked orphans, as I said yesterday.

What this book has in common with yesterday's selection, Little Men, from a writer's standpoint: My recollection is that neither of these stories treated the reader like a child. They told you the story of what was going on, and there was plenty of bad mixed in with the good (a parent dies and a house burns in Little Men, and the adult humans who know about The Borrowers tend to be out to exterminate them, plus they face famine, flood, and other possible disasters.

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( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 3rd, 2008 02:32 pm (UTC)
I loved The Borrowers! I think it was my second grade teacher who read it to the class. Was there something in there about a thimble? I know you mentioned the thimble as a stool, but my memory is really fuzzy (warm and fuzzy, but fuzzy nonetheless).
Sep. 3rd, 2008 08:47 pm (UTC)
There was definitely something in there about a thimble, only I don't remember precisely how it was used. I'd have to read the book again to sort that out, and it's just not an option at the moment, as I'm still working feverishly on getting through Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Guys Lit Wire next Tuesday.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 02:39 pm (UTC)
A thing for the underdogs, I completely understand that.

A thing for small creatures. I get that, too. One of my all-time favorites was Mistress Masham's Repose, which I enjoyed far more than Gulliver's Travels, which, let's face it, has little appeal to young readers. I never did see any of The Borrowers movies.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC)
I don't think I know Mistress Masham, although I did read a decent amount of Gulliver's Travels as a teenager - I read about at least two of the lands he visited.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 02:54 pm (UTC)
For me it was that a child knew of a secret world that grown-ups (experienced but dumb) would never believe in or understand.
Listen to this, This American Life, Act 4
Sep. 3rd, 2008 08:51 pm (UTC)
Re: borrowers
Ah - I think you're right. There is something wonderful about knowing things that grownups don't. Although in the case of the first Borrowers book, it's also safer if grownups don't know.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 04:01 pm (UTC)
I love those stories-- didn't discover them until my oldest did, but I love them all the same!
Sep. 3rd, 2008 08:51 pm (UTC)
They are pretty magical, at least in my memory.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 04:06 pm (UTC)
I read the original, as an adult starting to investigate the world of children's literature. And one more, with "Miss Bianca" in the title, I think. Both were borrowed from the library. (heehee)

I agree with your reasons for its appeal. But the books also had charming, interesting characters in dangerous situations full of tension. Very well constructed plots.

And talking animals! Kids love them when they're unique and well done. I have to be careful not to get up on a soapbox about this subject, so I'll shut up now. :-)

Edited at 2008-09-03 04:39 pm (UTC)
Sep. 3rd, 2008 05:05 pm (UTC)
An aunt or a grandmother gave me an omnibus edition of all the "Borrowers" books. I read them, and I wanted to like them, but I always found something off-putting about them. I'm not sure what it was.

I liked those Miss Bianca books a lot, though. If memory serves, they're the books the Disney movie "The Rescuers" was based on. I looked them up on Amazon, and the author was Margery Sharp, who also wrote a lot of very good adult books--I remember one in particular called "Britannia Mews."
Sep. 3rd, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC)
I read them in the early 70s, and haven't read them since. It is possible that they felt dated to you, assuming that you'd have read them at a later period in time. It is also possible that some of the darker bits (I think the mother gets fairly mopey in The Borrowers Afield for instance) bugged you, or that the books contained too much description for your taste. (Again, I haven't even peeked inside them yet, but older books tended to be heavier on description of settings and objects, and that can feel really tedious to folks who were born in the 80s or later, because books changed as a result of changes in things like movies and TV - I read books at a time when we had just gotten our first color TV, and there were only 4 channels, and there were no VCRs, and movie theatres only had 2-3 movies showing at most, so we were more likely to sit through description than kids who grew up with far more media competing for their attention.)
Sep. 3rd, 2008 09:11 pm (UTC)
I read them in the early 70s, and haven't read them since. It is possible that they felt dated to you, assuming that you'd have read them at a later period in time.

Nope, sounds like we're of approximately the same vintage -- I was born in 1961, and I read a lot of older, description-filled books growing up. What I remember is feeling like the books just weren't much fun--the Borrowers were always scared and worried about something. I loved the idea of little people who lived under the floorboards like mice, but I wished they could have enjoyed it more.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 09:48 pm (UTC)
Makes sense. The realities of their situation were well thought-out, which is, I suppose, what makes them seem so real and (in a way) plausible. But it also makes for the books being less of a romp.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 08:53 pm (UTC)
I don't recall any talking animals in The Borrowers, but it's possible that I'm misremembering. Love that icon, by the way, which reminds me of another book I'll be talking about soon. Place your bets as to whether it's The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Stuart Little or Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC)
I loved the Borrowers as a little girl, too. I first read it when I found a copy in a stack of books my school librarian was getting rid of. It's a very old and tattered copy. I read it and loved it!

But it wasn't until I was in college that I thought to find the rest of the books. I read and loved them, too.

I so enjoyed the idea of these little people using all our little things. (What is it about girls and our love of little things?) And I wanted to be that little boy. *I* wanted to discover a little family.

Hmmmm. Brillaint story.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 08:58 pm (UTC)
I wanted to discover a little family, too. A real one, that could move into my (nonexistent) doll house, and tell me about their day.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 04:41 pm (UTC)
The Borrowers were among my favorite books, too.
Sep. 3rd, 2008 08:59 pm (UTC)
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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