Okay, I lied about The Lorax. Actually I was planning on posting on that book today, but then I discovered that this film is coming out Friday. So I’m bumping the trees for a few days.
I’m very curious about this movie, as it’s the latest from Studio Ghibli, the fantastic Japanese Animation studio that has brought the brilliant works of Hayao Miyazaki (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Ponyo, among others) to the screen.
You can check out my review of Ponyo here—it’s a wonderful film. Miyazaki is involved in this one, as he’s given screenwriting and production credit, but this one is the debut film for Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
Let’s get to it:
The Secret World of Arrietty, Disney (Ghibli). Release Date, Feb. 17. UPDATE: You can find my review of the film here.
The Borrowers, (first in a series of five books), by Mary Norton. Originally published in 1952.
Ages five and up to be read to (some suspense and complex language could be too much for a four-year-old). Assisted reading at about the 3rd grade level (a little more challenging but in the same ballpark as the Magic Treehouse series), and read-on-your-own around the 4th grade.
$1.99 on Google Books and iTunes (sequels are running $4.99). Widespread print copies availability elsewhere for as little as 50 cents online (though be warned, I didn’t check out shipping costs).
Quickie Plot Synopsis
Like John Carter, we return to the late 19th century. And like A Princess of Mars, this story is told by flashback as the little girl Kate pries a story from family friend Ms. May. She provides an answer to one of the great mysteries of life: why do all those little things around the house, from safety pins to stray socks, seem to just vanish into thin air?
I've been looking for that!
The story takes place in the English countryside as a nine-year-old boy (Ms. May’s little brother) convalesces at his Great-Aunt Sophy’s aging manor after becoming ill upon the family’s return from India. It is here that we meet Pod, Homily, and Arrietty Clock, a family of human-like creatures no larger than mice. They, as do many of these self-anointed “Borrowers” live inside the walls, attics, and “spaces between” of the human world.
Pod, the father, is the “Borrower” of the family, risking life and limb to get the fish bone sewing pins and blotting cloth carpet that keep the family running. In one expedition to secure a toy teacup, he is “seen” by the boy. But rather than scream in fear, the boy actually helps him accomplish his mission and allows him to go.
Rather than run away as all the other Borrowers in the house had done, Pod instead begins to take the clever, curious, and creative fourteen-year-old Arrietty to begin borrowing with him. Finally freed from the caged existence of her youth, she experiences the outside world for the first time, and inadvertently runs into the boy and they begin a friendship—something they both desperately need to alleviate their mutual isolation.
Put our roof back on! You, you, uh, what did you say your name was again?
At first a clandestine relationship, the boy deduces the location of the Clock’s dwelling, and abruptly introduces himself to the whole family. After earning their trust, he becomes a borrower for them, first finding pieces from a long forgotten dollhouse, then upgrading to precious knick-knacks from all over his great-aunt’s home.
The latter move alerts Mrs. Driver, the stern caretaker of the home, who in turn uncovers the Clock residence, and quickly becomes determined to rid the house of these pests. She turns to the cruel exterminator Mr. Firth, who proceeds to flush the house out with poison gas. Just before the boy is forced to leave the house, he is able to escape Mrs. Driver and break open a grate on the side of the house, allowing the Pod, Homily, and Arrietty to escape.
Ms. May tells Kate that she seemed to have some proof that the Clocks made a new life for themselves in the wild, as some years later, she went to Sophy’s house and brought a number of borrowed items out to the field where her brother said they made their escape. But the diary she found which seems to have the full accounting of the Borrowers’ world, supposedly written by Arrietty, is penned in a hand suspiciously similar to her brother’s.
This is a very English tale. Kind of an Downton Abbey meets Peter Pan. It is lushly written with a wonderful detail of The Borrower existence. As Pod and Homily speak of the Borrowers who once inhabited the house, a pecking order of aristocracy and working class (the Cooks being the latter) is obviously “borrowed” from the human world they inhabit. That analogy is extended to their relationship with humans, seeing them as servants and rationalizing their theft of human things as akin to picking the apples off a tree.
A different kind of "little people"
This is really the story of Arrietty’s coming-of-age. Instead of a gradual process, it happens in a more compressed fashion because of her fourteen years of being clostered under the kitchen. As she awakens to the actual realities of the world around her, from the genuine feelings of these humans, to the fact that the world itself does not revolve around her and The Borrowers, both hers and her family’s world is entirely transformed.
But while her world is transformed, I’m not quite as sure that Arrietty is. While I loved a number of the themes working in this book, I was a little disappointed in the fact that I didn’t feel like the main characters actually grew. Norton does an expert job setting up the conflicts—class, race, captivty and freedom, and even some pretty complicated ideas like the relative notion of property. But in my opinion, she really does not pay them off by truly having the characters come to terms with their own biases.
The boy remains “the boy” throughout the book, and unnamed entity to the Clocks right through the end. Hominy and Pod accept him more because of what he brings than who he is. And while there is a little more depth to his relationship with Arrietty, neither of them seem to have gained a genuine new perspective on their world through each other. Perhaps this is something saved for later books (though it would seem that this is the last Borrowers book with the boy), but I have to say I was left a little flat in what I felt was the most important element in the story.
That aside, this is a well spun tale that I believe both boys and girls alike would enjoy, though I would expect some might become bored in the early stages of the book as real conflict really doesn’t begin until about half-way in.
Overall Read Score: 3 out of 5 stars
Opportunites for Discussion
Also a big fan of "Borrowing"
Giving and Recieving: This is simply a fantastic book at any reading level to be able to discuss what “sharing” means. The different layers of this book are all about the relative nature of posessing things, as the Borrowers take from humans, but don’t see it as stealing. When the boy enters their lives, he begins to “borrow,” but does it not for his own sake, but for the Clock clan. What is the difference, if any, between how the Pod and Arrietty borrow, and how the boy does? Where is the line between taking things and sharing things?
As importantly, the lack of appreciation that the Clocks, most notably Hominy has for the boy’s efforts can bring up a very important discussion about the importance of appreciation for the giver. I’m personally a stickler on manners, and the Borrower clan really have none for the boy. Indeed, they become so self-involved in the posessions they are getting, that they really seem to have little thought for the effort he is putting in. And when that effort turns to danger, they again can only think about their plight. Until the end, they see the boy as a means to an end (indeed, the fact that they never know the boy’s name is quite telling). Their lack of growth is a great leaping off point about the importance of truly appreciating that others do for you, which I think is a vital conflict partnership lesson.
The Importance of Knowledge: Arrietty’s journey is one from cloistered ignorance to a world of knowledge. Her views of humans change as she is exposed to a larger world and her rather teeny place in it. This is a great example of the value of knowledge to battle prejudice, as so much of that is born from ignorance. Indeed, this book might be a nice gateway into other fantastic books that deal more concretely with the subject, such as the classic Huckleberry Finn (can you tell I’m a Twain fan?).
Help!: This book is replete with examples of places where the characters really need help, but refuse to admit it. From the boy helping Pod get the teacup, to Arrietty and the boy’s reading sessions, the notion that each person can bring something to the table to help the other, and that both asking for help, and volunteering help can “lift all boats” is a great thing to point out throughout the book. And while I noted in this post what a fan I am of people needing to try the “mad dash” alone from time-to-time, I think kids, especially independent-minded ones, can use reminders of the value of asking for, recieving, and giving help to others.
“You’re Not Better Than Me!”: Being a very British book, Norton peppers in examples from top-to-bottom about people seeing themselves in different “classes.” Some of the Borrower families considered themselves above the Clocks, and Hominy really bought into those distinctions. You can have a great conversation with your kids about what might make people think they are better than others, and how that concept might be different from those like smarter, richer, bigger, or stronger.
Science, Myth, and Theories: Okay, here comes the nerdist POV. One really neat point of interest in the book is when Ms. May explains that the Borrowers were as a species continuing to grow smaller over generations, as their fear of the humans literally transformed their bodies. This is a potentially neat gateway into a couple of different subjcts. One is Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and how the environment actually changes species over time to help best fit their environment. One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this in action is the Hedylepta, a butterfly that has adapted to eat only bananas in Hawaii even though bananas are non-native to the islands. I first saw it as part of this fantastic debate back in 1997 on PBS.
At least their toes got less hairy as they evolved
On an even more nerdy level, the evolution of the Borrowers brings to mind a fantastic exercise in creative logic. As when Ms. May described the notion of the Borrowers continuing to shrink, I thought, “Oh, so that’s what happened to Hobbits!” They didn’t go away, they just got so small that they essentially vanished. This led me to think about the more modern theory about the dinosaurs, that they did not become extinct, but instead evolved into birds.
So from Norton’s “that’s where all the lost stuff goes!” to Hobbits to banana butterflies, I think the book opens up all sorts of wonderful ways to open up creative conversations with your kids about how theories and stories are developed, and the similarities in that happen in the scientific and the creative processes.
Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.
What to Expect from the Movie
The Secret World of Arrietty is going to be interesting, given the book was so very Brittish. Indeed, there is a live action version of The Borrowers that came out in 1997 (an Americanized version starring John Goodman that bombed). But this movie is set in Japan, so while there is certainly no lack of class system in that culture, I’ll be very curious to see how the plot and feel changes, and how those changes in turn are translated for an American audience.
From what I read on the website, the plot looks somewhat similar, but it looks to me like they have really looked to pump up the relationship between the boy (who now also seems a teenager, and has a name, Shawn) and Arrietty to something more akin to a love story—we’ll see about that.
Also it looks like they have changed the plot to really create a tension throughout the movie between the Borrowers and the Mrs. Driver character, which for a movie is likely a good choice as you don’t really feel that in the book until about two-thirds of the way through.
The voice cast includes Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett. I have to say I loved Burnett’s turn as The Sour Kangaroo in the Horton Hears a Who film (of which Poehler was also a part), so I’m excited to see what she does with this role. The animation looks lovely, though from the preview I have to say it doesn’t seem to have quite as much of the dreamlike quality that other Ghibli films do. The subject matter being a little more real—a fantasy, but not in the realm of the fantastic) might account for that.
This might be the first of this series where I do a post-movie review as well, as both my boys are interested in seeing it so we’ll probably go take it in this weekend, so keep an eye out for that.
Next in this series: Really, truly, of Truffulas, Thneeds, and greed.