Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1953)
Illus. Beth and Joe Krush
Harcourt Young Classics, 1998

Beyond the dark passages beneath the floor.

Past the strong gates, barred with safety pins, that only Pod knows how to open.

There: upstairs.

There: the potential to be seen…by people.

Arrietty has never known of these things. Sure, she has peeked through the grating in the house’s brick wall; she has seen the gravel path and flowers and birds and sky, the grass which grows as high as her shoulders.

That’s more than many borrowers have seen. But there is still much that Arrietty does not know about borrowing. And she is the last borrower child of the last borrowers’ family who lives in the house, and she is thirteen years old now, old enough to know more.

“The way I look at it,” said Homily, “and it’s only now it’s come to me: if you had a son, you’d take him borrowing, now wouldn’t you? Well, you haven’t got no son — only Arrietty. Suppose anything happened to you or me, where would Arrietty be — if she hadn’t learned to borrow?”

Returning to this book as an adult reader, I took note of different things about the life of the borrowers. As a child reader, I wasn’t much concerned with how Mary Norton explained their existence. I didn’t even remember the frame of the story, old Mrs. May telling a young girl about something that Mrs. May’s brother said he’d seen when he was a boy.

No, as a girl reader, this tale wasn’t one that was told to another by yet another, about someone  long dead, many years hence: it was a vivid and immediate story.

I spent hours staring at the illustrations of Pod and Homily and daughter Arrietty, drawn by Beth and Jo Krush. Well, not all of them, but the illustrations of the borrowers’ life beneath: the family in their sitting room, the scene with Homily abed, Arrietty’s room, the kitchen table.

As a child reader, of course they were real.

As an adult reader, I find Mrs. May’s explanations and descriptions fascinating, the way that she darts and dives around what is possible.

This reading of The Borrowers reveals that these little people have a history, and a culture, an existence beyond this single adventure that unfolds after Pod, the father borrower, has been seen by a boy.

This event is what makes Pod and Homily realize that they need to start Arrietty on the path of being a borrower. First, she goes with her father to gather fibres from the doormat which will be used to repair her mother’s scrub-brush. “Let her just see at any rate”: her mother presses.

Arrietty does see. And she likes what she sees. “How glorious it was to run — you could never run under the floor: you walked, you stooped, you crawled — but you never ran.” While her father gathers the bristles, which are knee-high on him, Arrietty explores.

And…then…the unthinkable happens…Arrietty is seen.  And even though she is still very small — at least in comparison to humans — her world gets much, much bigger.