The Borrowers and Mary Norton: An Imaginative Children's Book

The hole leading to Pod, Homily and Arrietty Clock's home is located under a grandfather clock.
The hole leading to Pod, Homily and Arrietty Clock's home is located under a grandfather clock. | Source

A Captivating Story for Children

The Borrowers is a story about a family of tiny people that live in a home under the floorboards of a house. Pod, the father in the family, secretly "borrows" (collects) food and other items from the house. This enables him, his wife Homily and his teenage daughter Arrietty to enjoy a comfortable life.

As the story progresses, Arrietty becomes increasingly frustrated with having to remain hidden and being unable to explore the world. Her behaviour eventually causes her to be seen by a big person - a very serious situation for a borrower - and even to develop a friendship with him. The friendship leads to a series of adventures that eventually force the borrowers to leave their home and immigrate to a new area.

The Borrowers was published in 1952 and was written by Mary Norton, an English author. The book won the 1952 Carnegie Medal, a British prize that is awarded annually for the best children's book. Norton created four sequels for her story, which are all popular, but the first book in the series is the best known. In the sequels, Arrietty continues to form relationships with big people.

Mary Norton's childhood home, which is now part of a school; this was probably the setting for the Clock family's home in The Borrowers
Mary Norton's childhood home, which is now part of a school; this was probably the setting for the Clock family's home in The Borrowers | Source

Mary Norton - A Brief Biography

Mary Norton was born on December 10th, 1903, in London, England. Her birth name was Kathleen Mary Pearson. She grew up in a large Georgian house located in the town of Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire. This house is believed to be the setting for The Borrowers.

After leaving school, Norton had a brief career as an actress and spent a season with the Old Vic Shakespeare Company. She married Robert Charles Norton in 1927 and had four children from the marriage - two girls and two boys. The first part of her marriage was spent in Portugal, where Robert was an engineer. During the second world war, Norton worked for the British War Office and then for the British Purchasing Commission in the United States while her husband was in the navy.

Norton's first marriage was dissolved. (Dissolution can be thought of as a no-fault divorce.) She married her second husband Lionel Bonsey in 1970. She died in England on August 29th, 1992, after experiencing a stroke. She was eighty-eight years old.

Mary Norton's grave is located at St. Nectan's Church in Devon, England
Mary Norton's grave is located at St. Nectan's Church in Devon, England | Source

The Early Books of Mary Norton

Mary Norton's first book was published in 1943 while she was in the United States. It was entitled The Magic Bed Knob or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons. A sequel called Bonfires and Broomsticks was published in 1947. The two stories were combined and republished in 1957 in a book called Bedknob and Broomstick. This book became the basis of the 1971 Disney film entitled Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which starred Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson.

The Borrowers was Norton's most famous book. One of her publishers describes Mary Norton as having a wonderful sense of humour. Norton said that the idea of the borrowers and the problems that they would face developed because she was very shortsighted. She was often looking at things close by while other people were peering into the distance. Norton enjoyed examining plants and wondering what it would be like for a tiny person to travel through them.

Mary Norton enjoyed getting close-up views of plants and animals and wondering how tiny people would deal with them.
Mary Norton enjoyed getting close-up views of plants and animals and wondering how tiny people would deal with them. | Source

Introduction to The Borrowers

I have long believed that a children's book should be enjoyable for adults, too. In my opinion The Borrowers definitely fulfils this requirement. It's an interesting story and has an imaginative plot. It also has great descriptions of scenes, people and the attitudes and emotions of the main characters. I enjoyed the book as a child and I still enjoy it today.

The plot is driven by the desires of fourteen-year-old Arrietty, who lives in secret with her mother and father under the kitchen floor of a large house. A long tunnel leads to Arrietty's home. The entrance to this tunnel lies under the grandfather clock in the front hall of the house. Arrietty's family is therefore known as the Clock family. (Even the names of the borrowers are borrowed.)

There were once other borrower families located in other parts of the house. As the children in the family of big people left and the lady who owns the house became bedridden, rooms were no longer used and borrowers could no longer find enough food to survive. Only the Clock family remains.

When he was younger I've seen your father walk the length of a laid dinner table, after the gong was rung, taking a nut or sweet from every dish, and down by a fold in the tablecloth before the first people came in at the door. He'd do it just for fun, wouldn't you, Pod?

— Homily Clock, AKA Mary Norton
The borrowers used letters written by human beans as wallpaper.
The borrowers used letters written by human beans as wallpaper. | Source

A Plot Summary

Borrowers believe that "human beans" (a mispronunciation of human beings) exist to support them. The Clock family feels that they have a perfect right to borrow, which from their point of view is definitely not the same as stealing. Pod collects small items from the house and then he and Homily repurpose the items. Scraps of old letters becomes wallpaper and postage stamps become wall art, for example. Blotting paper is used as a carpet, stacked matchboxes as a chest of drawers and pins as knitting needles. Water is plentiful because while Pod's father was alive he tapped the pipes connected to the kitchen boiler. Food is borrowed whenever necessary.

Arrietty has spent her whole life inside the family home, with only a grating to view the outside world and only her parents for company. Although her home is comfortable and her parents love her, Arrietty is frustrated by her restricted life. To relieve her frustrations and to teach her how to survive if he dies, Pod takes Arrietty on the first of a planned series of borrowing trips.

Postage stamps are often miniature works of art. The borrowers liked to put them on their walls.
Postage stamps are often miniature works of art. The borrowers liked to put them on their walls. | Source

During her borrowing trip, Arrietty enters the garden of the house through the open front door. After a glorious exploration of some of the garden's delights, Arrietty is seen by a boy who is temporarily staying at the house. The boy appears to be a giant to her because he is a human bean.

Arrietty and the boy develop a friendship. This relationship is at first beneficial for the Clock family. The boy brings them wonderful things from the big house, allowing them to live in luxury. Unfortunately, the family is eventually discovered by the adults in the big house. The story ends with the family's dramatic escape to find a home elsewhere. They face grave danger during their escape from the house - death by inhaling rodent poison - but the boy saves their lives.

This blotting paper (the larger yellow sheet) dates from the early twentieth century. The Clock family used blotting paper as a carpet.
This blotting paper (the larger yellow sheet) dates from the early twentieth century. The Clock family used blotting paper as a carpet. | Source

Blotting paper was once used to absorb excess ink after writing, drawing or stamping with ink from an inkwell.

Other Books in The Borrowers Series

The sequels to The Borrowers describe the exciting adventures of the Clock family as they move from one temporary home to another, interacting with other borrowers and with human beans as they do so.

The five books in The Borrowers series and their publication dates are as follows.

  • The Borrowers - 1952
  • The Borrowers Afield - 1955
  • The Borrowers Afloat - 1959
  • The Borrowers Aloft - 1961
  • The Borrowers Avenged - 1982

In the first book there is a slight suggestion that the borrowers existed only in the boy's imagination, which always annoyed me when I was a child. I wanted Pod, Homily and Arrietty to be real. In the later books the reality of the borrowers is assured.

In the last book of the series the Clock family find their long-lost relatives. There are still questions about the borrowers' future to be answered at the end of the story, however. Some people think that Mary Norton had yet another book in mind but never wrote it.

The movie extract below is interesting because it sticks to the spirit of Mary Norton's book, although it doesn't follow the exact plot. The movie as a whole is billed as a reimagining of the original story, however. Christopher Eccleston plays the role of Pod.

The Borrowers - 2011 BBC TV movie

Movie, TV and Stage Adaptations of The Borrowers

There have been several screen adaptations of The Borrowers. Not all of these have followed the correct plot, however. For someone who loves the books this is a serious flaw.

The best screen version that I've seen is the award-winning 1992 BBC miniseries, which covers The Borrowers and The Borrowers Afield. I like this series not only because of its relative plot accuracy and its realistic special effects but also because the appearance of Ian Holm closely resembles my mental image of Pod.

The BBC produced a sequel to the miniseries in 1993. This was based on The Borrowers Afloat and The Borrowers Aloft and contained the same actors as the first miniseries.

From November 2014 to the end of January 2015, the New Vic Theatre in Britain presented a stage adaption of The Borrowers, complete with special effects. Other theatre companies have also presented The Borrowers. It's interesting that a story first published over sixty years ago is still so popular.

Matchboxes are made of thin wood or cardboard and often have attractive labels. The borrowers used them as drawers.
Matchboxes are made of thin wood or cardboard and often have attractive labels. The borrowers used them as drawers. | Source

A Fantasy but Not a Fairy Tale

The Borrowers is a fantasy, but it's not a fairy tale. Part of the charm of the borrowers is that they are so real. Although they call big people human beans and themselves borrowers, they are humans like us, despite their small size. The fact that they often live in an environment meant for much bigger people creates special challenges for them, however. The description of how they meet these challenges is one of the joys of Mary Norton's books. Her story of the borrowers has captured people's imagination ever since it was published. It's a story that can be enjoyed by both children and adults.

© 2015 Linda Crampton

More by this Author


Comments 52 comments

TheWritingnag profile image

TheWritingnag 23 months ago from Colorado Springs, Colorado

One of my favorite childhood books! Thanks for invoking such lovely memories.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, TheWritingnag. It was one of my favourite books, too!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 23 months ago from Other Side of the Sun

Thanks for a wonderful hub Alicia. I used to love the Borrowers when I was a child, but never knew very much about the author, so thanks for all the great info and pictures


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 23 months ago from Planet Earth

I just LOVED this book as a child - I've always loved anything 'miniature,' and the idea of a tiny family putting to use simple things in new ways enchanted me. What a fun trip down memory lane, Alicia! I hope generations for years to come enjoy the Borrowers on their bookshelves.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Cynthia. It's great to hear about another borrowers fan! Thank you very much for the comment.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Marcy. I agree - the use of everyday objects in new ways is an enchanting part of The Borrowers! Like you, I hope the story is popular for a long time to come and that more people discover its joys. Thanks for the comment.


ologsinquito profile image

ologsinquito 23 months ago from USA

I vaguely remember this book from my childhood. I'd like to read it again with adult eyes.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I think that the book is definitely worth reading as an adult, ologsinquito. Thanks for the visit.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 23 months ago from Olympia, WA

It's obvious I haven't had a child for awhile because I've never heard of this. Very nice review, Alicia.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, Bill. I appreciate your comment, as I always do.


tobusiness profile image

tobusiness 23 months ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

I remember following the BBC series of the Borrowers and being really intrigued by the little people. This is mainly because as a child, I used to imagine that there were little people living underground. However I never got around to reading the book.

Informative and and as always beautifully done.


DDE profile image

DDE 23 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

An interesting review. All new to me and I found this hub to be very enlightening on such a book.


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 23 months ago from Massachusetts

Hi Linda. I am also not familiar with The Borrowers. I'll have to find the books and give it a read. It sounds very interesting. A great review, thanks for introducing this to me.


heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 23 months ago from Chicago Area

I haven't thought about this story since like maybe 4th grade! Time for a whole new generation to discover. Have a beautiful weekend!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Jo. Thank you for the visit and comment. A story about little people living underground could be very interesting!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Devika, I'm glad you found the hub interesting,


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Bill. I hope you enjoy the book if you read it. Thanks for the visit.


klidstone1970 profile image

klidstone1970 23 months ago from Niagara Region, Canada

Is it bad that I've never heard of it and I have four kids? What a magical world to write about. Great job, Linda.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, Heidi. I hope a new generation does discover the story! I hope your weekend is going well, too.


Pro Shell profile image

Pro Shell 23 months ago from Vereinigten Staaten

This really takes me back to the days of my youth


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Kim. Although the stories of the borrowers are very popular, I think they may be better known in Britain than in North America. Their world is certainly magical, as you say. Your children might enjoy the books!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Pro Shell. Thanks for the visit. Reading The Borrowers again reminds me of my childhood, too, although I still enjoy the book as an adult!


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 23 months ago from sunny Florida

Lovely highlighting of this author...kids love her. I read the Borrowers to many classes of students over the years and they hung on every word ...certainly some wished they could have had such an experience

Voted up ++++ shared g+ tweet

More Angels are on the way to you today Aliicia ps


eugbug profile image

eugbug 23 months ago from Ireland

The plots are a dim distant memory, but as far as I can remember , I really enjoyed these books as a child.

Thanks for the memory!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing your experience, Patricia. I appreciate your votes and the shares a great deal, too. Most of all, I appreciate the lovely angels that you send!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, eugbug. Thank you for the visit and comment!


Ilonagarden profile image

Ilonagarden 23 months ago from Ohio

These are great stories for young children, the ones between toddler, just learning read-ers, and those who are full fledged readers ready for "The Hobbit".


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Ilonagarden. Yes, I've frequently seen the books recommended for ages 8 or 9 and up. Some adults like them, too!


PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 23 months ago from UK

This brings back so many memories! I used to love this programme on television when I was younger and I never did get around to reading the original books - maybe now I will. Great Hub.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, PsychGeek. I'm glad the hub is bringing back pleasant memories for people. The Borrowers is one of my favourite children's books.


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 23 months ago from California

Oh this looks wonderful! I loved the trailers!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Audrey. I think the videos are great, too. It's nice to see the borrowers in action!


Jodah profile image

Jodah 23 months ago from Queensland Australia

Hi Alicia, thi was very interesting. I can't recall ever reading "The Borrowers" or having heard of Mary Norton, but I have a feeling I must have because the story is very similar to my short children's stories I made into hubs called "Between the Floors". The first of these I wrote about 20 years ago..so in the 90s..maybe I saw the tv series about the same time and got the idea from that. Thanks for sharing this.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Jodah. Thanks for the comment. I enjoyed reading your "Between the Floors" hubs very much. I did notice the similarity with The Borrowers, though. It's interesting how we tuck ideas away in our mind and then use them in the future without remembering what stimulated them!


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 23 months ago from USA

Wonderful hub, and it looks especially timely, too, in some parts of the world. I never heard of this author but the way you highlighted The Borrowers it makes me want to learn more along with nieces and nephews.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, Flourish. I hope you're able to read the book with your nieces and nephews one day.


Vellur profile image

Vellur 23 months ago from Dubai

I have never read the Borrowers the series sound awesome and great fun for kids and adults to read.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Vellur. Yes, I think the series is both awesome and fun! Thank you for the comment.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 23 months ago from England

I never read the book, but I loved the film and the TV series, I never knew who wrote it though, so this was really fascinating, thanks Alicia, it made me smile to see it again!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Nell. Thanks for the comment. I can understand why the borrowers make people smile!


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 23 months ago from South Africa

Oh, I will enjoy reading The Borrowers series by Mary Norton, and I am going to get hold of the movie for my grandchildren. Thank you for this comprehensive and delightful review, Alicia :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Martie. Thanks for the visit and the comment. I hope your grandchildren enjoy the story!


vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 23 months ago from Peru, South America

I loved the Borrowers series! I agree that their appeal lies in their humanity. Thank you for sharing this review. I hope others will be able to enjoy this book.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, vespawoolf. It's nice to discover that other people like the borrowers. They are very interesting characters!


VioletteRose profile image

VioletteRose 23 months ago from Chicago

Sounds like a wonderful book to read. I love reading children's books for myself and for my kids. Thanks for sharing :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, VioletteRose. Yes, The Borrowers is a wonderful book for children. Thanks for the comment.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 22 months ago from Stillwater, OK

This sounds like such a fascinating fantasy. I think I'd enjoy reading it, too.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 22 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Deb. Yes, the story is a great fantasy. I think you would enjoy reading it, too!


MelRootsNWrites profile image

MelRootsNWrites 22 months ago from California

The Borrowers was one of favorite series as a child. I remember borrowing every single volume from the school library. I was fascinated by the tiny family and I think I hoped to find some Borrowers in my own home so I could help them with their adventure. Thanks for this wonderful article and bringing back such warm memories.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 22 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, MelRootsNWrites. I love the idea of you wanting to find borrowers in your own home! Thank you very much for the comment. I appreciate your visit.


aesta1 profile image

aesta1 21 months ago from Ontario, Canada

I was fascinated by this story. I have seen the name Mary Norton as that is my name, too, but I have never read one of her books. Thanks for this. I enjoyed it very much.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, aesta1. That's so interesting that Mary Norton is your real name! Thank you very much for the comment. I hope you're able to read about the borrowers some day. Even as an adult, I enjoy the story.

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