Contextualizing the Classics: The Borrowers and Front Desk

Bookishly Bright started as Contextualizing the Classics in fall 2017 as a final project for a course at Kansas State University on Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie. The first posts on this blog paired a classic with a contemporary text in order to explore the connections that existed between them and to bridge the gap between children’s literature scholarship and actual children. In the spirit of those original posts and the original aims of this blog, I’ve paired Mary Norton’s The Borrowers with Kelly Yang’s Front Desk for my final project for CHL429A Rereading Race in Classic Children’s Literature at Simmons University.

Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952) has endured as a classic of children’s literature in the UK and in America. The Clocks, Pod, Homily, and Arrietty, are the last Borrowers in their house, living under the floorboards and surviving by Borrowing scraps and small, forgettable, household items from the “human beans.” However, their security is challenged when Pod is seen by a human boy whom Arrietty then befriends.

While The Borrowers, with its small dose of fantasy and its Victorian setting, is certainly charming, it is not without fault. The book presents British imperialism through the boy who is staying at Great Aunt Sophy’s (where the Borrowers live) because he could not return to India where he is being raised because he is ill. The boy believes the Borrowers are magic because he has seen things that scrabble with their “nasty little hands” in India. This imperialism and subtle denigration of India is presented uncritically and remains unchallenged in the text. Though the boy is a child, he is still presented as superior to the Borrowers, despite their positioning as the protagonists of the story.

The Borrowers deals with themes such as social class, gender, and agency. An as scholar Chris Hopkins notes, “Above all, the Borrowers books are about both the pleasures and anxieties of a place called Home” (21).

The dynamics between the Borrowers and the humans whose homes they inhabit make for an interesting study of home and the forces that affect it. However, for contemporary readers looking outside of the canon of classic children’s literature and the subtle imperialism it holds, a contemporary text may help make more sense of these themes.

Kelly Yang’s Front Desk (2017), offers new look at home, social class, gender, and agency through the story of Mia Tang and her family, Chinese immigrants who manage the Calivista Motel for its mean owner, Mr. Yao and help other immigrants by letting them stay in empty rooms for free under Mr. Yao’s nose.

The following guide offers historical contexts, thematic comparisons, discussion questions, and other resources for linking The Borrowers and Front Desk that are aimed at young readers and the teachers, librarians, and parents who help them digest texts.

Recommended Age Range: 4th – 6th Grade, 9 to 12 years old.

About the Books

The Borrowers:

Underneath the floorboards of an English country house is the tiny world of the Borrowers. Pod and Homily Clock and their daughter, Arrietty, make their secret home beneath the kitchen. Whatever they need, they simply “borrow” from the “human beans” who live above them: a stack of matchboxes become a chest of drawers, postage stamps hang on the walls like portraits, and red blotting paper makes a cozy rug. It’s a comfortable life—but boring if you’re a kid. Only Pod is allowed to venture into the house above, because the risk of being seen by a human is too great. Being seen is the worst fear of every Borrower. Yet Arrietty is desperate to explore the world above the floorboards. So when Pod finally lets her go along on a borrowing trip, she takes one too many chances and is seen. The Borrowers are now in terrible danger. And their only hope for survival is to trust that most dreaded of creatures—a human boy.

Front Desk

Mia Tang has a lot of secrets— Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, 10-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests. Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed. Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language? It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

About the Authors

Mary Norton

Mary Norton (1903-1992) knew the Borrowers long before she began to write about them—as  a child she watched for them among the hedges near her rural home. After the publication of The Borrowers she continued the adventures of the Clock family in four sequels: The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft, and The Borrowers Avenged. She also wrote Bed-Knob and Broomstick, Are All the Giants Dead?, and the short Borrowers tale Poor Stainless. Although she is best known for her award-winning books for young readers, Ms. Norton was also an actress and playwright in her native England where she lived for most of her life.

Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang’s family immigrated to the United States from China when she was a young girl, and she grew up in California, in circumstances very similar to those of Mia Tang. She eventually left the motels and went to college at the age of 13, and is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. Upon graduation, she gave up law to pursue her dream of writing and teaching kids writing. She is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, a leading writing and debating program for children in Asia and the United States. She is also a columnist for the South China Morning Post and has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Atlantic. Kelly is the mother of three children and splits her time between Hong Kong and San Francisco. Please find her online at www.kellyyang.com and follow her on Twitter @kellyyanghk.

Historical Contexts

Historical contexts provide more information about the time period in which a book was set or the time period in which it was written. Historical contexts can help young readers understand the social and ideological forces present in society that impact the text that they are reading. In addition to understanding the historical context of the text, readers may also consider their own life experiences and the context of the time period in which they’re reading. Find citations for these contexts in the bibliography of this post.

The Borrowers

British Imperialism in India

“Well if you’re born in India, you’re bilingual. And if you’re bilingual, you can’t read. Not so well,” the boy tells Arrietty when she first meets him. The line tells us that the boy has been raised primarily in the British Raj, and thus benefits from British Imperialism in India.

It was once said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Britain had territories and colonies all over the world, including two-thirds India. From 1757 to 1947 Britain controlled India in what was called the British Raj. The British East India Company functioned as military authority that was interested in controlling the trade of British crops and products. In 1858 authority shifted from the British Easy Indian company to a British Governor-General who reported to parliament. Queen Victoria encourage the British government to “better” their Indian subjects by teaching them British practices. Many British children were raised in India by Indian nannies, called ayahs, during this time period. India was forced to contribute to the British war effort in both World War I and World War II. Indians rose up against the British numerous times during their occupation and on August 15, 1947, India became an independent nation.

The Victorian Era

In The Borrowers‘ frame narrative, Mrs. May tells Kate that her brother died “many years ago now, on the North-West Frontier.” If the boy in the story died on the North-West Frontier, a region in India, he was likely killed during World War I. In order for the child in the story to be a soldier during World War I, The Borrowers is likely set in the late 1800s or the early years of the 1900s.

Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901 is known as The Victorian Era. During this time, Britain experienced the Industrial Revolution and changed rapidly. British Imperialism flourished under Victoria as one-fourth of the world’s population was under British rule. While science and technology flourished in this period, urban areas grew which caused a great decline in rural life in England. Though Victoria died in 1901, the Victorian Era continued on through approximately 1914 as the same economic and social conditions continued before World War I.

British-Irish Relations

Scholar Andrew O’Malley notes that there is a long history of portraying common people as physically smaller. He shares that the 1836 Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain refers to the Irish as a subclass living “beneath a more civilized society” (77). It’s possible that by making the Borrowers a miniature species, Norton coded, implied by didn’t explicitly say, the Borrowers as Irish.

The English Crown took full control of Ireland in 1541, and Ireland officially became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. The Irish Potato Famine occurred in the 1840s and caused two million people to emigrate out of Ireland where they landed in various cities in North America and Great Britain. Irish citizens wanted to become an independent nation again and this desire characterized the relationship between Great Britain and Ireland until Ireland became fully independent in 1937.

Front Desk

Chinese Immigration to the United States

“It was 1993 and [Mia’s mother] bought every Chinese newspaper she could find,” Mia says near the beginning of Front Desk. The Tang’s immigrated to the United States two years earlier in 1991. There is a long history of Chinese immigration to the United States and specific trends that drove immigration up in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.

Through the first half of the 1800s, Chinese immigrants arrived on the west-coast where they found employment in labor jobs such as railroad construction, mining, and agriculture. In the 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act designed to prevent Chinese immigrants from entering the US. There were increased amounts of immigration right after World War II and in 1949 when the Communist Party came to power in China. In the 1960s, immigration restrictions were relaxed and more immigrants began to arrive when China loosened immigration controls in 1978 and normalized relations with the US in 1979. In the 1980s, political upheaval and economic instability began to drive more Chinese citizens to immigrate to the United States, a trend that continued into the 1990s. Many skilled immigrants could not get jobs in America in their fields of expertise and they struggled to gain representation in politics and their local communities. Today, Chinese immigrants are more likely than other immigrants to be involved in Business, Science, Management, and Arts occupations and to have higher incomes than other immigrants.

MoteLs

“The Calivista Motel sat on the corner of Coast Boulevard and Meadow Lane. It was a small motel.” Living at and managing a motel are a unique set of circumstances and motels have their own history.

In 1964, the number of roadside motels in the united states peaked at 61,000 motels across the country. The motel, the name a combination of “motor” and “hotel,” was designed with drivers in mind, as travelers could pull their car right up to the door of their room. The number of motels began to grow following World War II alongside America’s highways. The motel began to decline with the construction of the Interstate Highway System, as people could bypass congested areas and get to their destinations more quickly and directly. Hotel chains like Holiday Inn or Best Western began to dominate tourist accommodation. By 2001, motels had declined in popularity that the American Hotel and Motel Association changed its name to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Mia and her family would have been operating the Calivista right at the height of motel decline.

Commonalities and Discussion Questions

Home

As Hopkins identifies, “Above all, the Borrowers books are about both the pleasures and anxieties of a place called Home.” (21). The Clocks’ anxieties about home have to deal with potentially being seen by humans and losing the space they call home. There used to be a whole society of Borrowers, now the Clocks are the last family in the household.

In Front Desk, the Tangs are living in their car before they take a job as the managers of the Calivista Hotel. The Tang family is constantly navigating the tension between doing their job and making a living with the strict rules and shifty behavior of their manager Mr. Yao.

Home in both of these texts involves navigating safety and comfort with threats. Hopkins also notes that home isn’t just an anxiety for children in The Borrowers but that “these are matters of enormous concern to adults too, that children and adults are not in fact necessarily in different situations at all” (23). This is mirrored in Front Desk where Mia’s parents also navigate issues concerning home right alongside their daughter.  

  • While the Clocks live under Great Aunt Sophy’s floorboards, the Tang’s live in Mr. Yao’s hotel. How do these two versions of home compare to each other? Are there any similarities between how the two families live?
  • How do the behaviors of parents affect their children in these two stories? Arrietty and Mia both have desires and dreams, how do those come into conflict with the beliefs of their parents? How do their parents support their dreams relating to home and belonging?
  • The Tang’s are able to buy the Calivista at the end of the story while the Borrowers are forced to leave their home. Where do these two stories ultimately leave us on the subject of home?
Agency and Privilege

Both The Borrowers and Front Desk deal with questions of Agency and privilege. When the boy, starts bringing the Clock family things from the dollhouse, they lose their agency as borrowers, even though they have gained material privilege and apparent wealth. The boy seems to be the one with the most agency and privilege in the story of The Borrowers.

In Front Desk, Mr. Yao rules over the Calivista Motel, taking money out of Mia’s parent’s paycheck when the washing machine breaks and making them pay Hank’s bill when he loses his job but exercises tenant rights to stay at the Calivista. However, the Tangs exercise their agency by letting other immigrants stay at the Calivista free of charge. We also see privilege in Front Desk through Jason Yao, who also has to deal with agency in his relationship with his father while still being a really privileged kid.

  • Mia’s family are Chinese immigrants, how does their status affect their privilege and agency in comparison to the Clocks?
  • How do the Clocks exercise their agency before they are seen? What about afterwards? What does agency mean in relation to home for the Clocks?
  • Mia’s family takes control of their situation at the Calivista and help others, even if it means they could lose their jobs and their homes if Mr. Yao finds out. Who is right in this situation, the Tangs or Mr. Yao? How do these character balance doing the right thing with staying safe?
Social Class

The small size of the Borrowers as well as the fact that they live beneath the floorboards and can only survive by borrowing from the humans implies that they are members of a lower social class (O’Malley, 73). As O’Malley explains, “Borrowing is tolerated, but only if it supplies basic needs; if their consumption and behavior exceed certain class boundaries, the borrowers endanger the delicate balance that allows them to coexist with humans. (81) There is no way for the Borrowers to become truly independent in their situation. Emigrating to the country like Uncle Hendreary’s family might help the Clocks separate themselves from humans, though it would challenge their means of survival.

Mia and her family are poor. They shop at thrift stores, carry fake shopping bags at the mall, and barely scrape by with the money they make. On the other hand, the Yao’s are wealthy and Jason encourages kids at school to make fun of Mia because of her clothes. Lupe refers to being poor as being on a bad roller coaster: “On our roller coaster, our parents don’t have money, so we can’t go to good schools, and then we can’t get good jobs. So then our kids can’t go to good schools, they can’t get good jobs, and so on and so forth” (82).

  • Are the Borrowers on a similar kind of roller coaster to the one Mia describes? What are the differences between the Clocks and the Tangs? How does the difference in time period or the other historical contexts for these books effect the way we compare social class in these two books?
  • Because the Borrowers are technically a different species, it’s only implied that they’re of a lower social class, whereas we know that Mia and her family are of a lower class. What’s the difference between saying something that like directly in a book vs. just implying it? Does it affect the way we understand the characters?
Stories

Arrietty is proud of the fact that she can read and write, and she knows that she can use writing in her diary to avoid her mother since Homily herself can’t read and write. In addition to Arrietty’s connection to written stories, telling stories seems to be strongly connected to what it means to be a Borrower as Pod and Homily tell Arrietty stories of what it was like when there were other Borrowers living in the house. We also learn about the Borrowers through the story Mrs. May tells Kate.

Writing and telling her story are important to Mia as she hopes to write an essay to win a hotel in Vermont. She also writes essays in school, and while she struggles at first particularly with grammar and English, she keeps writing and wins a contest when she writes a story about what it was like to come to America. Mia also keeps writing even when her mother says she is a “bicycle” compared to kids who grew up speaking English and are “cars.”

  • Why is it important to tell stories in each of these books? Compare and contrast the stories told by the characters in these books: which kind of stories do you think are more impactful? What stories do you have to tell that are important?
  • Each of these books is part of a series. There are four more books about the borrowers and two more books about Mia and her family. What do you think might happen in these sequels?
GEnder

Pod is resistant to take Arrietty borrowing because she is a girl. However, Arrietty has an adventurous spirit, hates being cooped up, and wants to go out borrowing. Eventually Homily gets Pod to take Arrietty borrowing because they have no sons, so Arrietty must learn to borrow in case something happens to one of them in the future.

Mia has no problem working the front desk at the Calivista, in fact she’s better at it than Jason Yao the one time that Mr. Yao makes him check in customers. However, in China, boys are preferred to girls, and Mia shares about how her male cousins always got to take the best of the food first back in China before she started grabbing first too.

  • Arrietty is told that she can’t go borrowing because she’s a girl. Mia shares that boys are preferred to girls in China. What are some other gender roles and stereotypes that you see in these books? How do Mia and Arrietty challenge gender stereotypes?
Race

Race doesn’t initially seem as if it’s a factor in The Borrowers, but because of the historical contexts of the text, we know that Mary Norton uses British Imperialism as a backdrop for the boy’s appearance at the house. By creating similarities between the Borrowers and Irish people, The Borrowers also opens up a conversation about prejudice against people of different nationalities.

Mia and her family are Chinese Immigrants, Lupe’s family is from Mexico, and Hank is black. The immigrants who stay at the Calivista often share stories of racism and oppression. Mia gets mad when the police suspect Hank of committing a robbery which causes him to lose his job. When the security guard at the Topaz Inn, another nearby motel, tries to make a list of “bad customers” which is really just a list of black customers, Mia gets other local businesses to throw out the list and the security guard gets fired. Three Keys, the sequel to Front Desk, has even more conversation about race and its effects on the lives of those Mia cares about.

  • What would the Borrowers lives look like if they weren’t white? What changes would have to be made to the story to make that possible?
  • Mia’s experiences with racism towards Hank might connect to racism against people of color in our own society. Are there any ways you can take action in your community like Mia takes in her neighborhood?
  • In 2020 and 2021 due to the origins of the COVID-19 virus, there was increased violence against Asian Americans. How do the stories you may have heard on the news compare with the stories shared by the immigrants at the motel?

Teachers, librarians, and parents: help your young readers navigate finding and discussing contemporary news stories to discuss alongside this text as they make connections between literature and the real world.

Friendship and Community

There used to be more Borrowers living in the house with the Clocks. There were Overmantels, Harpsichords, and more. The Borrowers lack a community, so Arrietty becomes friends with the boy, reading to him because he can’t read himself.

Mia and her family find a community at the Calivista in the weekly residents. Lupe becomes a trusted friend for me. And ultimately, the Tang’s are joined by investors, both friends and strangers, to purchase the Calivista when Mr. Yao puts it up for sale. These friendships and the community the Tangs are a part of are their support system.

  • Why is community important? Based on Pod and. Homily’s stories, how would Arrietty’s life be different if there were other Borrowers in the house?
  • Mia and Lupe start their friendship by lying to each other about having Golden Retrievers. Why do they do this? What makes their friendship so strong? How do Mia and Lupe support each other in tough times?
  • What kind of friends and community do you have? How do they support you? How do you help your friends and community in their times of need?
Author’s Notes

Both The Borrowers and Front Desk have author’s notes that discuss the author’s experiences and inspiration for their stories. Read Kelly Yang’s author’s note to Front Desk.

Mary Norton’s 1966 author’s note about The Borrowers is unavailable online, but can be found in many print editions of the book. Norton shares about how she was near-sighted as a child and dreamt of the Borrowers before she needed glasses and when she was ill and stuck in bed. It was only after World War II that she thought again about the Borrowers because “there were human men and women who were being forced to live (by stark and tragic necessity) the kind of lives a child had once envisaged for a race of mythical creatures.”

  • Do the authors’ notes affect how you read either of these books?
  • Norton’s note often comes at the beginning of The Borrowers while Yang’s author’s note comes at the end of Front Desk. Does it matter if you read the author’s note first or last? Why or why not?
  • Norton explains that the atrocities of World War II made her think of the Borrowers again so many years after she had made them up as a child. Does this change how you would otherwise read the Borrowers? Should what was happening when an author wrote their book be looked at as a historical context? If so, what events from the late 2010s would readers want to look at when thinking about Front Desk?

Resources

For Further REading (or watching)

The Borrowers and Front Desk are both the first books of a series. The Borrowers has several movie and TV adaptations as well! Find out more about these additional pieces of media by following the links below.

The Borrowers Series
The Front DEsk Series
The Borrowers Movie Adaptations

Bibliography

Echeverria-Estrada, Carlos and Jeanne Batalova. “Chinese Immigrants in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute. 15 January 2020. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/chinese-immigrants-united-states-2018

History.com Editors. “Victorian Era Timeline.History.com. 23 March 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/victorian-era-timeline

Hopkins, Chris. “Arrietty, Homily, Pod: Home, Size, Gender, and Relativity in The Borrowers.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 25 no. 1, 2000, p. 21-29. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/chq.0.1643.

L.A. Times Archive. “1990s: The Golden Decade: In Pursuit of a Better Way of Life.” Los Angeles Times. 15 Jan 1990. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-01-15-ss-95-story.html

Norton, Mary. The Borrowers. Harcourt Brace, 1953.

O’Malley, Andrew. “Mary Norton’s “Borrowers” Series and the Myth of the Paternalist Past.” Children’s Literature, vol. 31, 2003, p. 71-89. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/chl.2003.0013.

Szczepanski, Kallie. “The British Raj in India.” ThoughtCo. 28 January 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-british-raj-in-india-195275

Stamp, Gavin. “Neighbours across the sea: A brief history of Anglo-Irish relations.” BBC. 8 April 2014. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-26883211

Steinbach, Susie. “Victorian era”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Mach 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/Victorian-era.

Wood, Andrew. “The Rise and Fall of the Great American Motel.” Smithsonian Magazine. 30 July 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/twilight-mom-and-pop-motel-180963895/

Yang, Kelly. Front Desk. Scholastic, 2018.

our understanding of Literary texts continues to grow and change, if you have any thoughts or suggestions related to these texts I look forward to hearing from you in the comments or contact me here

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