Book Review of The Borrowers by Mary Norton

The Borrowers by Mary Norton - A Book Review by What My Kids Read Please note that this post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means if you buy through my links, I will receive a percentage of the sale. It doesn’t cost you more, but it helps us out. Thanks! 

The Borrowers is about a family of small people who live in the floorboards of an old house. They “borrow” things like pins and potatoes from humans. It’s the first of five books, written by Mary Norton (who also wrote Bedknob and Broomstick). I am always a sucker for a tale where the characters have to repurpose items to make a home (think Beatrix Potter animals or the story of “Thumbelina”). Anytime there’s a story where a mouse makes a bed out of a matchbox and some stuffing, I am smitten! So, this book was right up my alley,

As a child, I watched a cartoon series called “The Littles,” and I somehow thought it was based on The Borrowers, but it’s not. The stories are similar in that there are little people and they hide from humans, but that cartoon was based on an entirely different set of books by an American author name Jon Peterson (and now I am seriously tempted to buy the cartoon series here The Littles – The Complete Collection). *ahem* Anyway, this is an older book that I had never read, and I found it to be really fun. It would be a great read-aloud, but both Liam just read it on his own (click on the link below for his review), and Paul is reading it to himself now, so it would only be new for Brontë. I still may add it to our winter list, just because sometimes you pick up on new things when you listen to a story out loud (and I really like this story!).

Parents should be aware that the Borrowers are about as small as mice, so I would consider this a fairy tale kind of story (no magic spells, but the existence of little people and mentions fairies). The Borrowers live by stealing what they need, and those ethics are not really addressed. Also, there is an old lady that drinks heavily every night. It is often referred to in a matter-of-fact way. Although the books were written in the 50s, the setting is early 1900s, so there are some vocabulary building opportunities. Things like hat pins and a pianola are mentioned.

The messages of this book are be kind to the weak and do not be greedy.

My Mom-Meter gives The Borrowers an overall safety rating of 1 (Safe) for ages 7 and up.

Click here to skip to Liam’s review of this book

Click here to skip to a Plot summary

Click here to skip straight to Potential Discussion Points

Category ratings (click on the category to see specifics):

Alcohol/DrugsModerately Safe

BullyingSafe - no actual four-letter words

Disrespectful AttitudesSafe - no actual four-letter words

GamblingSafe - no actual four-letter words

Gross BehaviorSafe - no actual four-letter words

LanguageSafe - no actual four-letter words

Magic/SupernaturalModerately Safe

MoralityModerately Safe

Romance/SexSafe - no actual four-letter words

Scary ThemesModerately Safe

ViolenceSafe - no actual four-letter words

Plot summary of The Borrowers: ***Contains Spoilers***

Wikipedia has a decent summary of the plot here.

Potential Discussion Points for Parents in The Borrowers:

  • Mrs. May’s brother thought that the Borrowers were frightened. “It was because they were frightened, he thought, that they had grown so small. Each generation had grown smaller and smaller, and more and more hidden.” The Clocks were definitely ruled by fear – fear of being discovered, fear of having to move, fear of change. Have you ever made a decision because you were afraid?
  • Homily runs the home, and tells Pod what to do. You might want to talk with you child about what your family believes about roles int he family.
  • The boy tells Arrietty that “borrowing” is really stealing. Arrietty laughs and says that humans are made for Borrowers to borrow from. Borrowers would never steal (meaning steal from each other). Mrs. Driver is shocked when she finds things missing, but she has taken small things herself. “A drop of Madeira here, a pair of old stockings there, a handkerchief or so, an odd vest, or an occasional pair of gloves – these Mrs. Driver felt, were different; these were within her rights. What do you think about what they call “borrowing?” Is it stealing? Is it any different from Mrs. Driver taking small things that won’t be missed?
  • Arrietty didn’t tell her parents right away about meeting the boy. Was that wise? What if the boy had not been kind? Do you think Arrietty should have let her parents know about her conversation with the boy right away?
  • When the boy starts bringing things for the Borrowers, Homily gets greedy. “Yes, they were happy days and all would have been well, as Pod said afterwards, if they had stuck to borrowing from the doll’s house. No one in the human household seemed to remember it was there and consequently nothing was missed. The drawing room,  however, could not help but be a temptation…” The Borrowers’ greed led to them being discovered and having to emigrate. Can you think of an example in your life or another story when greed led to bad things?
  • The story is pretty believable. Do you think the Borrowers were real or just a story? 😉

Alcohol/Drugs:

  • The lady of the house, Mrs. May’s aunt, drank an entire decanter of wine (Fine Old Pale Madeira) every night at 6 pm. Pod visits the old lady after she had a few glasses of Madeira, and she thinks he is a figment that appears when she is drunk. Arrietty says, “She thinks my father comes out of the decanter.” This is mentioned many times throughout the book, not as a bad thing, but as a fact that has happened and will happen. “Nobody blamed Her, not even Homily, because, as Homily would say, She had so few pleasures, poor soul…”
  • Arriety sleeps in a cigar box that says “Flor de Havana… Garantizados… Superiores… Non Plus Ultra… Esquisitos…”
  • The Overmantels (another Borrower family) live near the tobacco jars. “The men smoked all the time because the tobacco jars were kept there… Not only the tobacco jars, but the whiskey decanters too, were kept in the morning room and they say those Overmantel men would suck up the dregs in the glasses through those quill pipe-quill pipe-cleaners…Laid out, they’d be, dead drunk…” The tobacco jars are referred to several times, as are the Overmantel men “smoking and drinking.”
  • Arrietty tells the boy that Pod brought Homily to meet the lady of the house (after she had a couple of glasses of Madeira), “and She perked up like anything and kept asking after her and why didn’t she come anymore and saying they’d watered the Madeira because once, She says, She saw a little man and a little woman and now she only sees a little man…”
  • Mrs. Driver and the gardener Crampfurl drink alcohol without permission every night. Mrs. Driver offer Crampfurl “another drop, considering there was more in the cellar than anyone would drink in Her lifetime…” Another night, Crampfurl says “Just a drop. That’s enough. Goes to your liver, this sweet stuff – not like beer, it isn’t.” Mrs. Driver says “Here, pass your glass, there’s only a drop left – might as well finish the bottle…” “They’re drinking Fine Old Madeira, thought Arrietty.” Later, Mrs. Driver “would not sit and drink with him as usual.”
  • When Mrs. Driver describes Homily, the policeman looks at her as if to say “Take more water with it” (implying that she had been drunk). Aunt Sophy, the lady of the house, suspects Mrs. Driver of drunkenness too, and orders all of the bottles of Madeira be kept in her room where she could keep an eye on them. Aunt Sophy tells Mrs. Driver that if she doesn’t want to see the Borrowers, she should “Keep the bottle corked,” meaning stop drinking alcohol.

Bullying: None

Disrespectful Attitudes: None

Gambling: None

Gross Behavior: None

Language:

  • “Stupid” is used a few times. (“stupidly” once)
  • “Queer ” is used in the old-fashioned sense, as in strange or unusual.
  • “Foolhardy” is used, and may need to be defined.
  • “A mountain of coke” is mentioned, but coke in this case refers to a type of fuel (made from coal).
  • “Gay” is used in the old-fashioned sense, as in merry or happy.
  • “My goodness gracious” is said three times.
  • Mrs. Driver calls the boy, the Borrowers, and the policeman a string of names. “You’re a wicked, black-hearted, fribbling little pickpocket… They’re nasty little crafty, scampy, scurvy, squeaking little… A nasty, thieving, good-for-nothing dribbet of no-good… Seemingless smutch of something-or-other…”

Magic/Supernatural:

  • Mrs. May said that her brother “He wanted to impress us… And yet, there was something about him – perhaps because we were brought up in India among mystery and magic and legend – something that made us think that he saw things that other people could not see…”
  • Mrs. May mentions the “little people.”
  • “Fairyland” is mentioned in passing.
  • Arrietty thinks the boy looks like a monster.
  • Arrietty asks the boy if he is a fairy, and the boy asks Arrietty if she or her father is a fairy. They both say they don’t believe in fairies, but Homily does. “She thinks she saw one once. It was when she was a girl and lived with her parents behind the sand pile in the potting shed… [It was] about the size of a glowworm with wigs like a butterfly. And it had a tiny little face, she said, all alight and moving like sparks and tiny moving hands. Its face was changing all the time, she said, smiling and sort of shimmering. It seemed to be talking, she said, very quickly, but you couldn’t hear a word… When my mother saw it, it seemed to be caught in a cobweb.”
  • Borrowers “get a feeling” when humans are around.

Morality:

  • Everything the Borrowers owned was “borrowed,” or stolen.

Potentially Offensive Behavior:

  • Slaves are mentioned once, when describing how the Borrowers viewed humans. “They thought human beings were just invented to do the dirty work = great slaves put there for them to use.”

Romance/Sex: None

Scary Themes: 

  • They intend to fill the Borrowers home with poisonous gas to kill them. The boy used a pick-ax to break open the grate for the Borrowers to escape.

Violence:

  • It is mentioned that a hat pin can be a useful weapon for a Borrower.
  • Mrs. May’s brother who met the Borrowers became a colonel and was killed on the North-West Frontier. “He died what they call ‘a hero’s death.'”
  • Homily tells her daughter, “I shall smack you, Arrietty Clock, if you don’t behave yourself this minute!”
  • Mrs. May’s brother tells Arrietty “I’ll hit you with my ash stick… break you in half.”
  • Mrs. Driver threatens several times to “take a slipper” to the boy (give him a spanking).
  • Crampfurl the gardener mentions carrying a gun once.
  • The rat-catcher (also the pig-killer) has a gun, a hatchet, a pick-ax, and poison fumes to deal with the Borrowers.
  • They intend to fill the Borrowers home with poisonous gas to kill them. The boy used a pick-ax to break open the grate for the Borrowers to escape.

 

From a ten-year-old’s perspective: “The Borrowers is a pretty good book. It is quick and easy to read. My favorite part was how real it seemed. It made sense that there might be people living under the floorboards, because otherwise, where do all of our things that are missing vanish to? It reminded me of The Indian in the Cupboard because both books have small people. Kids that liked The Indian in the Cupboard would probably enjoy The Borrowers.”

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Comments

  1. Love the Borrowers. A few summers ago I read the whole series to my 4 children over a few months. We all loved them.

    • Jennifer, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books to my kids – glad to hear the rest are enjoyable! Thanks for stopping by! :)

  2. I remember reading these myself as a child. Thoroughly enjoyed them. In fact, I’ve been meaning to find them to read again. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Becki, glad I could help! 😉 It’s so fun to rediscover our childhood favorites – especially when they are still as charming as we remember! :) Pippi Longstocking was that way for me – totally forgot about it, and then recently rediscovered it with the kids. So fun. :)

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