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'Arrietty,' 'The Borrowers' and the appeal of all things small

The childhood fascination with the littlest of things comes to life in the animated Japanese film 'Arrietty,' which takes on Mary Norton's classic book 'The Borrowers.'

February 12, 2012|By Jerry Griswold, Special to the Los Angeles Times

This is the world the Borrowers inhabit: where a drop of water is a pending threat to those below, where a ticking clock causes the floor to vibrate and where tissue paper is stiff and loud. It is the same world where Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina is "pelted" by a snowflake and where E.B. White's mouse-sized Stuart Little must manhandle a straw when proffered a drink. A change of scale makes us see the ordinary with different eyes.

Here lies the secret behind "The Borrowers": Mary Norton was nearsighted as a child and wasn't diagnosed until she went to boarding school. Later, talking about herself in the third person, Norton confessed that recalling her life before glasses made it easier for her to imagine a race of tiny people, living close at hand and among the ants: "She saw through their eyes the great lava-like (sometimes almost steaming) lakes of cattle dung — chasms to them, whether wet or dry. It would take them, she thought, almost half an hour of tottering on ridges, helping one another, calling out warnings, holding one another's hands before, exhausted, they reached the dry grass beyond.

Nearsightedness is a kind of image for childhood's fascination with smallness. The young pay attention to things close at hand. Nearing 90 years old, poet John Masefield looked back at his youth and recalled how he could spend hours looking into his box of toy soldiers and marbles. The young and the old, Masefield insisted, see the world differently: "The child knows his mile, or at most his two miles, better than a grown-up knows his parish."

There are implications to this. Because the young see the world differently, implicitly, their points of view challenge the unquestioned and consensual values of adults. One day, Stuart Little serves as a substitute teacher and asks his tiny charges what's really important in life. The kids do not mention wealth or fame or even, say, upcoming elections. They agree that what's really important in life is "the way the back of a baby's neck smells." Who's to say they're wrong?

Griswold is the former director of the National Center for the Study of Children's Literature. His most recent book is "Feeling Like a Kid."

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