Book Review: The Borrowers

THE BORROWERSHere are a few of the books that I remember loving in late-elementary school: A Wrinkle in Time, Caddie Woodlawn, The Wheel on the School, The Indian in the Cupboard, and The Borrowers. (Also the Babysitters Club, but we don’t need to pretend that’s great literature; just good, clean fun.) It occurs to me that I have now read all of those books with my son except for The Indian in the Cupboard. I don’t know what happened there. I’ll have to get on that because he’s fast out-growing reading time, in middle school. And I can’t assign it to him because he’s got a stack of books that’ll keep him busy for a while.

So we just finished The Borrowers by Mary Norton. As with many lauded children’s books, I have learned too late that it is part of a series. The series is:

  • The Borrowers
  • The Borrowers Afield
  • The Borrowers Afloat
  • The Borrowers Aloft
  • The Borrowers Avenged

The first book of the series is the one that won the Carnegie Medal in the 50s, and it can stand alone, as it very frequently does. I am going to review the first book, here. (Note: knowing that there are later books sort of takes some of the tension out of the original book, so you might want to save that tidbit of information for later, for your children. If they, then, really enjoyed the book, you might want to get them the next book in the series and be like, “Surprise! There are four more!”)

There is, unfortunately, a bit of an old-fashioned English voice here, so there were things that went right over my son’s head. And I think he tired of asking what things were. Marmalade, crochet, bit-bucket, silabub, parquet, crumpets, decanter, Maderia for the matter… I’m sure you’re sick of hearing it, but I’m an Anglophile, and I have been since I was a little girl. Eamon, on the other hand, has limited exposure to the British literature that he has read (though I have hoisted nearly all Roald Dahl books on him at one point or another). And today’s kids also seem to, in general, stick to stories that take place in their own time. Not that this is acceptable or good, but it makes it harder for them to read older stories like this, full of allusions and language that is outdated. It might be better suited for a classroom, in this case. Or maybe, like I did, they’ll just learn as they go.

At the time, this probably came across as a wildly imaginative story. All of a sudden, fairy stories were about much more earthly creatures who lived right under your floorboards! And they weren’t fairies, they were borrowers, which explains where all the missing things go. (These days, for sure, they’re borrowing our socks, tape, and scissors.) It’s still a great concept: tiny people living among us, but staying out of sight, using our things. Also, that they believe they are the center of the universe and full-sized humans exist to supply them.

It’s told as a story-within-a-story, a literary device that was not as outdated in 1952 as it is now. The narrator is telling the story to a little girl, about when her brother stayed at a great-aunt’s house and accidentally discovered the borrowers who lived there. The story comes full circle, at the end, leaving the little girl and the reader in some doubt as to whether or not borrowers really do exist. (My son was not happy about that. He said, with disappointment, “I thought that story was true inside the book.”) The story in the story revolves around the teenage Arrietty and her parents, who are the last borrowers in the grand house. Arrietty has been sheltered within an inch of her life, but she’s not the kind of girl who can be kept inside all the time, and when she sneaks off, she lands the whole family in mortal peril. There are plenty of British themes: the naughty but normal boy, an invalid in bed addicted to the bottle, the maid, getting over illness by an airing out in the country, the brow-beaten husband, etc.

It is written nicely. There is a traditional plot and definitely some adventure and action. No romance to distract, just a great book for children. I appreciate the more traditional style of the book: medium-paced with honest-to-goodness normal sentence, paragraph, and chapter length. There’s humor. There’s even sadness. I recommend it particularly for kids who will enjoy the subject matter enough to stay focused on the story through the old-fashioned bits. Or for spunky gals. Or for bourgeoning Anglophiles.


There are at least two adaptations of The Borrowers that come up when you do a little research. Neither one of them are reviewed very favorably, and you can tell just from their covers that they veer very much from the original story. Different time. More characters. Plot changes. On one hand, I don’t like that when a movie is that far off. On the other hand, I think we might need to watch a movie at “school” today. (Note: The Secret World of Arrietty looks the best of the bunch, but it’s $12 to buy online, so…)

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