About "The Borrowers" by Mary Norton

A Compelling Story About Tiny Individuals

Cover art for The Borrowers classic children's book
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Mary Norton's story about Arrietty, a girl about 6-inches tall and the others like her, is a classic children's book. For more than 60 years, independent readers between the ages of eight and 12 have delighted in The Borrowers.

Who Are the Borrowers?

Borrowers are miniature people who live in hidden places, such as inside walls and under floors, in people's homes. They are called borrowers because they "borrow" everything they want or need from the humans who live there.

This includes home furnishings, like spools for tables and needles for kitchen utensils, as well as food.

Are the Borrowers Real?

One of the things that makes The Borrowers so much fun to read aloud and discuss with second to fourth graders is the way in which the story is framed. The book begins with a discussion between a little girl named Kate and Mrs. May, her elderly relative. When Kate complains about losing a crochet hook, Mrs. May suggests it might have been taken by a Borrower and the story of the Borrowers unfolds. Mrs. May tells Kate everything she knows about the Borrowers. At the end of Mrs. May's story, Kate and Mrs. May discuss whether the story of the Borrowers is true or not. Mrs. May provides reasons why it might be true and reasons why it might not be.

Readers must decide for themselves. Some children love to argue about why there must be Borrowers while others love to share all the reasons there can't be.

The Story

The Borrowers fear being discovered by humans and their lives are filled with drama, action and adventure. There's suspense as they seek to furnish their little home under the floor and get enough food for their family while avoiding humans and other dangers, like the cat. Although Arietty, her mother, Homily and her father, Pod, live in the house, Arrietty is not allowed to leave their little home and explore the house because of the danger.

However, Arrietty is bored and lonely and finally is able, with her mother's help, to convince her father to take her with him when he goes borrowing. While her father is concerned because there is increased danger with a boy staying in the house, he does take her. Without her parents' knowledge, Arrietty meets the boy and begins visiting with him regularly.

When Arrietty's parents find out that a human boy has seen her, they are prepared to take drastic action. However, when the boy gives the Borrowers all kinds of wonderful furniture from an old dollhouse, it seems like everything will be okay. Then, disaster strikes. The Borrowers flee, and the boy never sees them again.

However, Mrs. May says that's not the end of the story because of some things she found when she visited the house the next year that seemed to confirm her brother's story and gave her an idea of what happened to Arrietty and her parents after they left.

​Themes

The story has many themes and takeaways, including:

  • Prejudice:​ Prejudice is a constant undercurrent in the book. The Borrowers do not like people, and assume the worst about the boy.
  • Class:​ There are social issues at work. There is a class system in the Borrowers' world, where the place where you live determines your status.
  • Growing Up:​ The Borrowers' is very much a coming-of-age story. Arrietty learns that her parents can be wrong, and she progresses in the story as she matures.

​Discuss these themes with your child to help him or her understand the different issues how they may be relevant to children's lives today.

​Lessons For Kids

The Borrowers can spark children's creativity. ​Below are ideas on activities your children can do:

  1. ​Build useful items: Provide your children with some basic household items like a button, a cotton ball, or a pencil. Ask your kids to think of ways Borrowers could use these items. For example, perhaps the cotton ball could be a mattress! Encourage your children to combine items to create all new, useful inventions.
  2. ​Visit a miniature museum: You can take your child's interest in the book and all things miniature outside by visiting a miniature museum or dollhouse exhibit. You can both marvel at all of the tiny appliances and things and think about how a Borrower would live there.

    Author Mary Norton

    British writer Mary Norton, who was born in London in 1903, had her first book published in 1943. The Borrowers, the first of five books about the tiny people, was published in England in 1952 where it was honored with the annual Library Association Carnegie Medal for outstanding children's literature. It was first published in the United States in 1953 where it also won accolades and was honored as an ALA Distinguished Book. Her other books about the borrowers are The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft, and The Borrowers Avenged.