Sheila Egoff's

Miniature Adults Compel the Growth of Children

by Michael Groberman

Michael Groberman is in the second year of the Master of Library and Information Studies Degree at the University of British Columbia. He has a special interest in children's literatures.

A child is the boss of his or her toys, and may choose to play the role of parent, colonel, or god to these inanimate things that are smaller than he or she. He or she may take care of them or destroy them. But how does the child's experience change when the small object, the six-inch humanoid figure is not an inanimate toy but a living human being? Several children's books examine this situation. For this article we will look at Mary Norton's The Borrowers (1952), Pauline Clarke's The Twelve and the Genii (1962), T.H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose (1946), and Lynne Reid Banks' The Indian in the Cupboard (1981). In addition, we include Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) because although the protagonist in the voyage to Lilliput is not a child, children have always identified with him nonetheless. And in the second voyage, to the land of the giants, Gulliver is cared for by a child.

In all of these cases the response of the child is one of emotional growth. Because they are different ages, the growth is not the same for each, but what they share is a development over time of increased sense of responsibility, attempts to understand what that means, some trials and failures, and ultimately maturation. These are hopeful coming of age stories that imply a child confronted alone with an adult's responsibility will struggle to do the right thing. But not all is good. The children cannot get past the power imbalance of size. Any disagreement is quickly resolved in favor of the giant child who, frankly, could kill the miniature human with one stomp. And that power relationship will never change. Perhaps that is why the stories must end with a permanent separation, because the power imbalance simply cannot go on for long no matter how friendly the relationship becomes.

Let's begin at the beginning, with Gulliver's Travels. The shipwrecked Gulliver wakes up on dry land and discovers he cannot move. This may be the most memorable image of the hero: lying there, tied down. "Soon I felt something alive moving on my left leg, advance gently over my great chest and coming almost to my chin. Bending my eyes downwards as much as I could, I saw it to be a human creature not six inches high, with a bow and arrows in his hands and a quiver at his back" (Swift 11). He is accepted by the kind and little Lilliputians, who make a set of special laws to guide his behaviours. From his position, as the giant among child-adults, he chooses to live among them (where else will he go?)

In his essay, "Gulliver in the Doll's House" (1984), John Traugott writes of the game in which "Gulliver is playing mock-ogre, putting six of the little 'criminals' in his pocket, taking them out one by one, making a terrible face as if to eat the squalling rascal alive, and then setting him gently on the ground to run away. Next, they are playing hide-and-seek in his hair. And after all this playing at benign monster, Gulliver is on his knees beseeching the six-inch monarch for his freedom" (131).

Traugott points out that the child reading this can play the same game with his toys. Swift is describing a child's game (131). The child reader can imagine himself or herself as Gulliver, playing this game with the adult Lilliputians, and other games as well, such as allowing the miniature people to play hide-and-seek in his hair. This magnanimous act of gentleness with living miniatures reveals kindness, gentleness, and emotional growth in response to deciding how to treat these relatively powerless but completely human creatures.

Traugott's note that this is child's play is well taken, but we must take it a step further and note that in the case of Gulliver the toys are alive and that this is an important difference. The emotional growth does not come from the toy play, but from the human play. Perhaps the most significant growth experience from the visit to Lilliput is the result of Gulliver's great transgression.

In the final naval battle between Lilliput and Blefuscu, the Lilliput king asks Gulliver to bring all of the enemy ships into Lilliputian ports. Gulliver responds to the king: "I plainly protested that I would never be the means of bringing a free and brave people into slavery" (Swift 38). M. Sarah Smedman writes in " Gulliver's Travels as Children's Book" that "With their innate sense of justice, [children] will stand with Gulliver in his refusal to enslave a courageous people" (81).

Here the child, identifying with Gulliver, rejects authority and stands alone doing the right and just thing. As the god-like figure, the giant child is in a position to take on all the tiny adults who are wrong and cruel and unjust and say "No." What a powerful and transforming act for the child (or young person) to realize what is right and to be able to assert, by virtue of his or her powerful position, his or her belief.

The second voyage to Brobdingnag, the land of giants, sees Gulliver as the six-inch human relative to the human beings who live there. After several adventures he comes into the ownership of a family, and then into the custody of the family's nine-year-old daughter. We don't learn very much about girl and her thoughts about tiny Gulliver since the story is told in the first person by Gulliver. But we discover some things that are revealing.

"She was very good-natured and not over forty feet high, being little for her age. She gave me the name of Grildrig, which the family took up, and afterwards the whole kingdom. The word meant, in English, doll. To her I chiefly owe my preservation. We never parted while I was there. I called her my Glumdalclitch, Little Nurse. And I should be guilty of great ingratitude if I omitted this mention of her care and affection towards me" (64). But of course she is not a nurse because he is not a child. She takes care of an adult's needs though she is only a child. The implication of "nurse" suggests her acknowledgement of Gulliver's helplessness, her relative power, and how she regards her powerful role. A nurse is a caretaker, focused on the well-being of her charge, responding to its needs by first learning its needs. She is also teacher, instructing Gulliver in the Brobdingnag language. She learns about him, and discovers what he needs to be taken care of.

When Gulliver moves to the royal household, he asks to be accompanied by his nurse. "I then said to the queen ... I must beg as a favor that Glumdalclitch, who had always tended me with so much kindness, and understood how to do it so well, might be admitted into her service and continue to be my nurse and instructor" (Swift 70).

Though not discussed at all in the story, she is a child who is protecting her charge as best she can from her father, from the society that sees Gulliver as an entertainment, and from other dangers. She regards herself as his sole protector and Gulliver reassures her of this. For a child to develop such a unique relationship with another human being, a human being who uniquely needs her help, is to be alone in the world, apart from other children and other adults. Glumdalclitch is the sole person alive able to bear this special responsibility. This cannot but be a transforming experience, a moment of maturation. She is more than a babysitter or mother: her relationship with social organization has been altered.

In Mary Norton's The Borrowers, the relationship is between the miniature family, mainly the thirteen-year-old daughter Arrietty, and the ten-year-old human Boy whose name we do not learn. The Boy is, of course, our main interest here. How does his experience of Arrietty and her parents alter him and act as coming of age experience? The Boy is living in a big old house, recovering from rheumatic fever, along with bedridden Great-Aunt Sophy, Mrs. Driver the cook, and Crampfurl the gardener. He discovers Arrietty in the garden one sunny day. Both are frightened.

[Arrietty] lay back among the stalks of the primroses and they made a coolness between her and the sun, and then, sighing, she turned her head and looked sideways up the bank among the grass stems. Startled, she caught her breath. Something had moved above her on the bank. Something had glittered. Arrietty stared. It was an eye. Or it looked like an eye. Clear and bright like the color of the sky. An eye like her own but enormous. A glaring eye. Breathless with fear she sat up. And the eye blinked. A great fringe of lashes came curing down and flew up again out of sight. Cautiously, Arrietty moved her legs: she would slide noiselessly in among the grass stems and slither away down the bank.
"Don't move!" said a voice, and the voice, like the eye, was enormous but, somehow, hushed—and hoarse like a surge of wind through the grating on a stormy night in March.

She fears the worst now that she has been "seen", but once the boy threatens her with a stick, afraid she is a fairy, she turns with bravery and challenges his rudeness. The two soon negotiate friendship. John C. Stott indicates in his book, Mary Norton (1994), both are isolated, lonely children desperate for a chance to break free of a confining existence (52).

This immature boy and this pre-adolescent girl have an ongoing effect upon each other. In the case of the ten-year-old boy, he finds himself in possession of a secret: the presence in the house of this last family of Borrowers, Arrietty and her parents Pod and Homily who take their surname, the Clocks, from the entrance to their home under the large Grandfather Clock. The Boy reveals himself to be kind, offering to take a letter to Hendrearys. We may ask if he has forgotten the size difference, and is a ten-year-old boy trying to please a thirteen-year-old old on whom he has a pre-pubescent crush. First of all, this element is very real. The gender difference is significant, and the sexual element cannot be denied. But there is more.

Neither the Boy nor Arrietty (nor all the Clocks) can forget the size difference the way the reader might from time to time. Instead, the Boy is always operating from a position of kindness towards his power inferiors, to those whom are not only in need of his "borrowing" but also of his protection. He takes on the decidedly adult role of caretaker to adults, and in this develops a complex set of responsibilities that drive him to emotional maturity. He alone is the caretaker of these small human beings. He is hiding them from the normal-sized adults whom he believes would not accept them and would try to destroy them. The Boy even believes he would be punished for his presumption of responsibility. Not to diminish the events of the Second World War, but the decision to hide from the Nazis those whom they would have murdered or put into camps at personal risk to the hiders gives us at least a sense of the mission taken on by this boy. He steps out of his society to do what he considers right and in doing so renews himself and his relationship to his society. This is clearly a coming of age experience for him.

After the events of the story, the book tells us, the Boy never returned to the house but went over the events of that summer over and over again. Stott writes, "That he should remember and frequently recount the episodes of that summer is not surprising. His friendship and his actions had liberated the timid, insecure little boy. Like Arrietty, "it was the first summer of freedom, the beginning of his journey to adulthood" (53).

In The Twelve and the Genii (published in the United States as The Return of the Twelve) young Max discovers a set of twelve well-used wooden soldiers in the floorboards of the family attic. They are the same soldiers that had been played with a century early by the Bronte children in their nearby home, now a museum. When they come to life for Max, and he alone knows for certain their true identity, he decides that it is his responsibility to help them return to the original home for which they long.

He discovers them alive while alone with them one day in the attic. He sets the soldiers out on the floor, "and lying on his tummy had beat with his fingers on the Ashanti drum so they could march to it. Before Max's startled eyes, one, a tallish fellow, at once picked out by his sly, bird-like alertness, hopped and twirled into life at the sound of the drum. He threw his tiny arms in the air as if he were glad to feel life again, he skipped along the ranks, punching some in the jaw, tweaking the noses of others, and tripping the feet of the most stolid. Then he found his place in line again and the whole lot stood to surprised attention and took at least ten tiny steps forward over the boards" (17).

Max is excited, and knows they will somehow come to life for him again. "They would trust him sooner or later. Surely they knew he loved them?" (18)

Already, at this very early point in the story, Max is convinced he can earn their trust, and he knows that he loves these soldiers, these miniature adults. He is ready to take on whatever responsibility is his to receive, and to receive it alone. He knows intuitively not to share what he has seen with anyone. He may only rely on himself.

They come to life again as Max sings the only marching song he knows. One invites Max to pick him up. "Are you of the Genii?" (19) the soldier asks. The text tells us that Max recalls the term from the Arabian Nights, where the Genii are "those spirits who preside over a person's destiny all his life" (19) and responds to the tiny soldier, "Yes."

As the soldiers become bolder in front of him, and demonstrate their ability as a team to negotiate small challenges within the house, Max feels personal pride in their talents. He offers them endless encouragement. He cares for this group of twelve men, protects them from discovery, takes care of their needs, and tells no one of their existence. Like the Boy in The Borrowers, he has taken on this protective role, in opposition of the larger and mainly adult society, out of a sense that only he knows what is right and only he can be certain that right is done.

Max's work becomes even more difficult when rumors begin to circulate that the toy soldiers with which the Bronte children played and about which they wrote have been discovered. An American has offered a very large sum for the toys, and will soon visit England to examine them. Now Max feels compelled to hide the soldiers. Although the authenticity of the soldiers lies in dispute, from speaking with the soldiers themselves, Max has come to believe they are genuine and also that they properly belong in the Bronte Home/Museum. Eventually his sister Jane and brother Philip learn of the living toys, and are accepted by the soldiers as Genii, the titles by which they knew the Bronte children.

Max and his siblings are watching and helping the soldiers on their march home to the Bronte house. It is a long and difficult journey that the soldiers have chosen for themselves. Max worries his charges will be discovered and wonders if it would not be best, for their own safety, to gather them and just deliver them to the Bronte house.

Max tells his siblings, "we'll just have to go the next morning and smuggle them in" (160). But his brother Philip, who had learned a great deal about the soldiers in a short period of time, thinks not.

Philip's plan was bold and desperate, but if it worked it would enable the noble Young Men to re-enter their original home with the kind of dignity which befitted them, and completely, and Phil said, under their own steam. This was very important to Max, for he had quite early realized that part of their life depended on their being left to do things by themselves and not being interfered with. He could oversee and suggest, but not dictate.

Max, in his emotional growth, is developing empathy for the soldiers, which means the needs of the soldiers now supercede what Max considers more pragmatic, such as simply delivering the box of soldieries to the Bronte house. He is devoted to the Twelve and through his singular care of them, and protection of them from human adults, takes on an extraordinary responsibility. He is a lone protector, taking the power afforded by his size as an opportunity to renegotiate his relationship to his society. This is a coming of age experience for young Max. Sheila A. Egoff writes in her Worlds Within (1988) that Max's "mature handling of the situation is made plausible—especially when he is put under pressure to sell the famous toys—by the brief glimpses we get of his parents, who treat Max with respect and back his determination to keep the toys" (212).

Mistress Masham's Repose, by T.H. White, tells the story of ten-year-old Maria, who lives on a large estate in the charge of a governess she hates, and the local vicar, her legal guardian, who is trying to find a way to steal her fortune. One day she escapes supervision (like the Boy and Max before her) and rows to an island on the estate where she discovers a race of little people: adults no more than six inches tall. Egoff writes, "They are the descendents of Swift's Lilliputians, and Maria is delighted with them. Her size quickly gives her a sense of power, and she begins to act like a Brobdingnagian amongst them...She interferes with the island people's ordered life, ruining their fishing boat with their clumsy fingers and introducing them to modern technology with disastrous results" (143).

Maria's discovery of the "People" turns to disaster when they are subsequently discovered by the governess and the Vicar who see an opportunity to make money by exploiting them. They regard the "People" as less then human; as more like toys, perhaps performing animals. Their attitude sparks Maria's development of a sophisticated emotional regard for the "People" and she now believes she has a moral responsibility to care for them. Maria does her best to protect the "People."

Marie Nelson writes in "T.H. White: Master of Transformation" (2001), "White presents an appealing picture of his fictionally extended self [the story's heroic Professor] as a man who helps a ten-year-old on her way to moral maturity. When Maria needs help with her philosophy of assisting others less fortunate—and much smaller—than herself, he advises her to remember what it was like for Gulliver when he was protected by Glumdalclitch in the land of the giants. He spells out the way Maria should treat the re-discovered Lilliputians with these words" (314):

"You must never, never force them to do anything. You must be as polite to them as you are polite to any other person of your own size, and then, when they see your magnanimity in not exerting brute force, they will admire you, and give you love.
"I know it is difficult," he added gently, "because the trouble about loving things is that one wants to possess them. But you must keep hold of your emotions and always be guarding meanness. It will be very difficult indeed."

This is a point we haven't considered yet. One human emotion the children surveyed here must overcome is the natural desire to possess the miniature humans, which must be overcome, and always to guard against meanness, an expression of frustration which would be experienced by the miniature humans as frightening and by the human child as he or she loses the love, admiration and trust of the miniature humans.

Finally, Egoff notes that Maria experiences important emotional development. She is maturing before our eyes. "[Maria's] inner journey from being an unthinking and possessive child to one with a sense of responsibility toward others is shown without sentimentality" (143).

In Lynn Reid Banks' The Indian in the Cupboard, Omri receive s two unusual gifts for his birthday. One he likes, one he does not. His friend Patrick gives him a second-hand plastic toy Indian. He is not pleased. His brother gives him an old-fashioned bathroom cabinet. Omri loves putting things into cupboards. He shortly discovers that when he puts the plastic Indian into this particular cupboard and turns a magic key that his mother had given him, the tiny Indian becomes alive.
At last he cautiously turned the key and opened the cupboard door.

The Indian was gone.
Omri sat up sharply in bed and peered into the dark corners. Suddenly he saw him. But he wasn't on the shelf any more, he was in the bottom of the cupboard. And he wasn't standing upright. He was crouching in the darkest corner, half hidden by the front of the cupboard. And he was alive.

Omri puts out his finger hoping to touch or pick up the Indian. The Indian stabs his finger with his small knife. "Omri stuck his finger in his mouth and sucked it and thought how gigantic he must look to the tiny Indian and how fantastically brave he had been to stab him" (12). Already, at this early stage in the story, Omri is identifying with the Indian's experience and feeling admiration rather than anger. This is the beginning of his emotional development, encountering new experiences and renegotiating his relationship to the human world, as explained in the essay "Coming of Age as a Culture? Emancipatory and Hegemonic Readings of The Indian in the Cupboard" (2000) by Victoria E Sanchez and Mary E. Stuckey. It is important to note that this essay is mainly about the film adaptation of Banks' novel, so I have drawn from it only those elements that apply equally to the novel.

In "Coming of Age as a Culture?" the authors suggest that as a story of personal development An Indian in the Cupboard describes a process by which a maturing child (Omri) "learns to stand in a different relation to the dominant [hegemonic social] codes" (79). A coming of age is when the child (as stated earlier) renegotiates his or her relationship to society. He or she is no longer a child and so takes on a new identity vis a vis the main hegemonic social constructs.

Omri is forced into the role of the Boy, Max, Maria, even Glumdalclitch. His response to the miniature human, to treat him as a toy, a pet, a slave, a baby, or an adult is a measure of his initial maturity and the place from which he begins his emotional journey. Omri learns that Little Bull is a real Indian, somehow snatched from his family and his world of 200 years ago in America. He is the son of an Indian Chief. He is a real adult with a personal history and a life to go back to. Omri feels increasingly responsible for Little Bull's welfare. Omri ensures Little Bull is protected and well-treated, that his needs are met, and finally, that he returns home where he belongs, permanently.

Omri, in his growing maturity, comes to realize that he and Little Bull are individuals, in some ways equals, but the size difference, and Omri's control of the cupboard, give Omri much more power that he may or may not choose to use in a positive way. That he does choose kindness, and takes that sensitivity further, like the other children about whom we've read, to stand alone in the face of a world of other children and adults, as lone savior of this helpless being, shows an independence of spirit. Omri stands alone against society for what is fair and just. He is Gulliver refusing to enslave the people of Blefuscu and Glumdalclitch who designs such beautiful carrying cases for the tiny Gulliver and who protects him (to her best ability) from her father, and from insects. He is the Boy hiding the Clocks from the gardener and cook, Max hiding his soldiers from his parents and the world, Maria hiding the Lilliputians from her governess and the Vicar.

All of these children are youthful adults by the end of their stories. They have grown into responsible protectors of the weak, challengers of social rules, independent determiners of right behaviour. This is clearly a coming of age for them all.


Banks, Lynne Reid. The Indian in the Cupboard. London: Granada, 1981.

Clarke, Pauline. The Twelve and the Genii. Illus. Cecil Leslie. London: Faber and Faber, 1962.

Egoff, Sheila A. Worlds Within: Children's Fantasy from the Middle Ages to Today. Chicago: American Library Association, 1988.

Nelson, Marie. "T.H. White: Master of Transformation." Neophilologus 85 2001: 309-321

Norton, Mary. The Borrowers. Illus. Beth and Joe Krush. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.

Sanchez, Victoria E. and Mary E. Stuckey. "Coming of Age as a Culture? Emancipatory and Hegemonic Readings of The Indian in the Cupboard." Western Journal of Communication 64 (1) Winter 2000: 78-91.

Smedman, M. Sarah. "Like Me, Like Me Not: Gulliver's Travel's as Children's Book." The Genres of Gulliver's Travels. Ed. Frederik N. Smith. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990: 75-100.

Stott, Jon. C. Mary Norton. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. (1726) Adapted and illus. David Small. New York: William Morrow, 1983

Traugott, John. "Gulliver in the Doll's House." English Satire and the Satiric Tradition. Ed. Claude Rawson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1984: 127-150.

White, T.H. Mistress Masham's Repose. (1946). The New York Review Children's Collection. New York: The New York Review of Books, 2004.

Michael Groberman

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"Miniature Adults Compel the Growth of Children"
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