Children's/Coming-of-Age, Norton, Mary

Review of The Borrowers by Mary Norton

When I was 6, my first-grade teacher read us The Borrowers. Unfortunately, I was a hyperactive child who simply couldn’t pay attention. I didn’t remember a single thing about the novel. In the past few years, I’ve been reading children’s books that I should have already been familiar with. I am happy to say that at the age of 29, I have finally read The Borrowers.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

The Borrowers by Mary Norton follows a family of tiny people who live – quasi-parasitically – off of humans (“human beans”). They “borrow” (or rather, steal) everything they need for survival: food scraps, thread for clothing, pins, etc. Our story, which is the first in a series, follows the Clock Borrowers. Homily, Pod, and their daughter Arrietty live under a grandfather clock in the household of Great-Aunt Sophy. Several times a week, Pod sneaks around the house, “borrowing” what his family needs and avoiding Sophy, her cook Mrs. Driver, her gardener Crampfurl, and an unnamed 10-year-old boy. Pod must avoid being seen by any “human bean”, otherwise he and his family will be forced to expatriate.

The frame narrative is of an aunt telling her niece about the stories that her brother used to tell her about the Borrowers. Mrs. May tells young Kate that her brother – the ten-year old boy – lived primarily in India, but after catching an illness, briefly returned to England to recover at his great-aunt’s house. This brother tragically died during World War I. The novel recounts what the boy claimed to have experienced in Great-Aunt Sophy’s home.

This book contains a surprising amount of specialized housekeeping vocabulary that readers of the 1950s may have been familiar with but that children (and adults) today have probably never encountered. Otherwise, the prose is straightforward. The Borrowers reminded me so much of The Indian in the Cupboard and The Castle in the Attic. All three books follow toy-sized protagonists. Although I didn’t feel that any single character stood out, all of them together brought the story to life. I found it to be a page-turner with an important – albeit subtle – moral.

Although I don’t plan to read the rest of the books in the series, I’m glad that I read The Borrowers. It’s interesting to see what children of the early 1950s read.

Favorite Quote

She learned a lot and some of the things she learned were hard to accept. She was made to realize once and for all that this earth on which they lived turning about in space did not revolve, as she had believed, for the sake of little people. “Nor for big people either,” she reminded the boy when she saw his secret smile.

Children's/Coming-of-Age, Ende, Michael

Review of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

What was it about?

Ten year old Bastian Balthazar Bux runs away from a gang of bullies from school and finds shelter in an old bookstore. There, he meets a bookseller named Carl Conrad Coreander who, instead of comforting the child, hurls insulting remarks at Bastian. But Carl is suddenly interrupted by a phone call. During the time the bookseller spends answering the call, Bastian steals a book titled The Neverending Story (I underline the title of the book Bastian reads to distinguish it from the title of the book we are reading). Because classes have already begun for the day, the boy decides to play hooky. He hides himself in the school attic and begins reading the book he stole.

The Neverending Story is not like any other fantasy book Bastian has ever read. Not only are the creatures extremely bizarre, Bastian soon discovers that he has an important role to play in the story. The Nothing is destroying Fantastica and is somehow responsible for the mysterious illness of the Childlike Empress. A child warrior with greenish skin and purple hair named Atreyu has been chosen by the empress to defeat the Nothing, but he is only given a magical medallion, the Auryn, for protection. Atreyu is ordered to leave his weapons behind. They will not help him in his quest.

Along the way, Atreyu’s horse dies in the Swamps of Sadness and is replaced by a luckdragon named Falkor. Falkor and Atreyu try to find a cure for the Childlike Empress’ illness but to no avail. The child warrior returns to the empress and admits his failure, but the empress has not given up hope. She knows of one who can save Fantastica, and he is the reader of The Neverending Story. The only person who can save Fantastica is Bastian Balthazar Bux, but unless he gives the empress a new name, the Nothing will annihilate the world. Will Bastian accept the mission?

What did I think of it?

Most people, I suspect, have never read The Neverending Story (translated from German by Ralph Manheim) but have at least seen the film adaptation. As a child, I really enjoyed watching the movie. Falkor is such a beautiful creature.

How can a child not like a movie with a creature that looks like this? I recently learned that two sequels were also made, but everyone I’ve talked to agrees that they are terrible. Michael Ende, the author of The Neverending Story, actually disliked all the films. He felt that the filmmakers had altered the message of his book. As I have not seen any of the sequels, I cannot  comment on Ende’s criticism, but I certainly expected a different kind of story when I picked up the book. The first third of The Neverending Story is fast-paced and covers the material portrayed in the first movie. Bastian learns of his mission. But the rest of the book is quite different from the beginning in tone as well as in pacing. Suddenly, The Neverending Story ceases to be a lighthearted action story and becomes darker and much more philosophical in nature. Once Bastian arrives in Fantastica, the action slows down and much emphasis is placed on the boy’s interior transformation. The creatures are just as bizarre, but they serve an important purpose in the story. At the heart of The Neverending Story is the question, “What sort of a leader will Bastian be?” Are there limitations to what Bastian can do? The way this book was constructed reminds me so much of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince). The first part is very childlike and whimsical. The final parts deal with more mature themes. I loved The Neverending Story. Good children’s literature, I believe, is loved by children and better appreciated by adults. A children’s fantasy book becomes a classic if it does more than tell a fun story. Michael Ende approached his books the way C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien approached their works. Ende’s objection to being called a children’s author reminds me a lot of Tolkien’s comments about children’s literature in his essay On Fairy Stories.

In 1985, Michael Ende wrote, “One may enter the literary parlor via just about any door, be it the prison door, the madhouse door, or the brothel door. There is but one door one may not enter it through, which is the nursery door. The critics will never forgive you such. The great Rudyard Kipling is one to have suffered this. I keep wondering to myself what this peculiar contempt towards anything related to childhood is all about.”

The comparison to Rudyard Kipling is quite accurate. The Neverending Story (1975) is very much like the children’s books of early 20th century authors. It deals with themes of power, wisdom, and loss. I recommend this book to people young and old. It is excellent!

Favorite Quotes

“Every real story is a never ending story.”

“When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.”


Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: Roald Dahl on Writing

author_dahlI can’t believe I almost forgot to celebrate Roald Dahl’s birthday! As I have written on many occasions, Dahl is my all-time favorite author. In eighth grade, I decided to learn more about the man behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and Matilda, and that is how I came across the Roald Dahl website. In an interview with Todd McCormack, Roald Dahl described his writing process.

Here is a link to that interview.

If you scroll down to the middle of the page, you will see a giant “play” button. Different segments of the interview can be accessed by clicking on the “forward” and “back” arrows. Dahl was a very eccentric man; in his writing hut that resembled an airplane cockpit, he kept his old hip bone; the hip bone served as a  paper weight. More than any other author, Roald Dahl understood the mind of children and purposely wrote for them.

My personal motto comes from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”

A relevant quote

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”
― Roald Dahl (Matilda)


Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: C.S. Lewis Praises Children’s Books and Fairy Tales


In 1946, C.S. Lewis wrote an essay called On Three Ways of Writing for Children in which he defended his career as both a children’s author and a fantasy writer. In the essay, he discussed two good approaches and one bad approach to writing for children. He had a lot to say to adult critics who routinely denigrated other adults for reading children’s books. Lewis also defended the inclusion of dark material in children’s fantasy books. This essay is as relevant today as it was in 1946. I have always valued children’s literature. In fact, I have had a life long dream/goal to write a children’s book . Recently, I went to my local public library and checked out a Newbery Award winning novel (Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi) and a picture book which I had been eyeing for months (The Almost Fearless Hamilton Squidlegger by Timothy Basil Ering). Every time I walk into the children’s section, I always feel a bit nervous because, other than the librarian, I’m the only childless adult in the room. But yesterday, as I browsed through the picture books, I realized that there is nothing to be nervous about. There is nothing wrong with reading children’s (or YA) books. I think it is important for all readers to read widely. Reading books that are written for different age groups is valuable. We live in a society, and society is made up of individuals of different age groups. If adults only ever do things (read books, watch films, play games) that are meant exclusively for adults, how will they be able to understand the children around them?

Lewis was convinced that literary critics who criticized other adults for reading children’s books were themselves childish:

“Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development.”

Here is the essay.