Little People in a Big World

Little people have existed in mythology and folklore dating back through history to the American Indians, whose petroglyphs show them horned, as well as in Ancient Greek mythology where pygmies (from the word pygme meaning the length of the forearm), were written about in The Illiad. In one tale the pygmies bind down the sleeping hero Heracles, a story that was later adapted by Swift for Gulliver’s Travels. Ever since Tom Thumb was published in 1621, purported to be the first fairy tale printed in English, there have been a litany of books about ‘the little people’ for children. The Grimm brothers collected a tale about Thumbling, ‘a child no longer than a thumb’, and as far away as Japan there is folklore about a child called ‘Issun-boshi’, translating to ‘Little One Inch’ – a tale about a miniature samurai with a sewing needle for a sword, a soup bowl for a boat, and chopsticks for oars. More familiar to current readers are Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen, The Borrowers by Mary Norton – which won the Carnegie medal in 1952, and Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen. Little people are a great device for storytellers – they can have crazy adventures in the most mundane landscapes; they can be a mirror into our ‘big society’, or a criticism of it – AN Wilson considered The Borrowers to be an allegory of post-war Britain – weakened people living in a decaying country, using recycled materials.

pocket pirates

A truly delightful addition to the canon of children’s literature about miniature people, Pocket Pirates: The Great Cheese Robbery by Chris Mould shows the author to have an inventive mind and the ability to pack a huge story into a tiny world. From the delightful premise – a story of pocket pirates who live in a ship in a bottle in an old junk shop – to the execution, complete with hugely detailed illustrations on almost every page – this story jumps off the page with excitement and is hugely entertaining. In the first story of the series the ship’s miniature cat is kidnapped and held to ransom by mice. The pocket pirates must steal cheese from the shop’s kitchen fridge to take to the mice and rescue their cat. Chris Mould employs all the traditional tricks of the trade when writing about small people, from the fear of the dog (huge from their tiny perspective), to his adaptation of normal sized objects to work for the pocket pirates – washing up sponges as chairs, shoelaces as ropes, a mustard pot for a bath – as well as magically using the tale of the Trojan Horse and transporting it into his story, replacing the horse with cheese in order to fool the mice. However, Chris’ attention to detail is exceptional – it takes much empathy to write from the position of a tiny person, incorporating practicalities as well as fears and obstacles, and Chris Mould does it with aplomb. This is a fun story – it leaves the reader wanting the next in the series – and is bound to be a huge hit for all small children! Age 6+. You can purchase it here.

blue glass

An old tale, but just translated into English for the first time is The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, about the little people who depend on the milk of human kindness, literally and metaphorically. The little people, a family of four – Fern and Balbo and their children Robin and Iris, live in a small library in a house in Tokyo. They are originally from England, but have been entrusted to the care of a young boy called Tatsuo in Japan, and then over the years to his family and children, and in particular, his small daughter Yuri. The little people rely on a small amount of milk being placed in the sparkling blue glass goblet for them every day by a human. When the Second World War comes to Japan, who are then at war with England, the humans and the little people become affected by external events, and nothing is the same again. Weaving complicated themes of patriotism, loyalty, cultural and moral identity, Tomiko Inui tells a bittersweet narrative of the impact of war on those behind the battlefields, and the children evacuated during the war effort. There are some wonderful descriptions of life in the Japanese countryside during the war, and much to be extrapolated about loyalty to one’s family, and standing up for what you believe in. There were some interesting similes from this tale written in 1959 about the little people being battered about in their basket in transit, much like migrants on a voyage across the ocean. This book is still relevant in so many ways – although tough to get into for the first chapter or so (which I put down to the translation warming up). The ending comes as rather a shock, but the book works as an eye-opener into another culture, and is an intriguingly different text from the run-of-the-mill contemporary children’s book. For those 8+yrs. Click here to buy a copy.

little girl
The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll by Edward and Aingelda Ardizzone was first published in the 1960’s but wonderfully is still in print and well worth a read. It tells the story of a sad little doll who is accidentally but rather callously dropped into the deep freeze compartment of a small shop. She makes the best of her surroundings, and is helped out by a small girl who shops with her mother and spies her one day between an ice cream tub and a mixed vegetables packet. The book is charming for many reasons. The world that the little doll creates in the freezer is magical – from the packets of food which act as buildings creating a pathway of streets between them, to playing bat and ball with an ice cream scoop and frozen peas (an image which has stayed with me for thirty odd years). The timidity of the little girl who finds the doll (she doesn’t pick her up as she’s been told not to touch things in shops, so merely drops packages of warm clothes into the freezer for her instead), is charming, and contrasts wittily with the sharpness of the shopkeeper, who is adamant that there are no dolls in her shop. The ending, for me, is most touching – the little doll uses her experiences in the deep freeze to tell stories to the other dolls she finally encounters. The story, short and sweet, teaches compassion, kindness and surviving against the odds, as well as, like Chris Mould, using wonderful empathy and inventiveness imagining life as a miniature in a deep freeze. The story was told by Aingelda Ardizzone to her children, and she was persuaded to write it down by her father-in-law, the illustrator Edward Ardizzone who then proceeded to illustrate it in his own magical style. Take particular notice of the illustrations of the haughty shopkeeper – the illustrations convey mood and emotion brilliantly. Age 4+. You can purchase it here.

chillly billy

Lastly, another cold miniature adventure is The Amazing Adventures of Chilly Billy, about the little man who lives in the fridge. Unlike the tiny doll, Chilly Billy’s place of living is no accident. He is the little man who lives inside the fridge and turns the light on when the door is opened, as well as polishing ice cubes, tidying the freezer, and repairing leaks in yogurt containers. The author writes directly to the reader, as if Chilly Billy lives in each and everyone’s fridge. For a small child, this is a magical narrative device and stretches the imagination. During the course of the book, Chilly Billy enters the fridge Olympics, suffers a ‘warm’ instead of a cold, and meets a new friend. Like other authors of little people tales, Peter Mayle has been inventive, imagining the special boots Chilly Billy would need to facilitate travel inside a fridge, as well as a special bike, the chores Billy must undertake, and the sports that can be done inside a fridge. As with the The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll, the images within this book resonate and instill characters that last beyond childhood. The version I have is colour illustrated by Arthur Robins – but I think the edition still in print is only black and white. Age 6+. You can purchase an ebook from Waterstones here or click the Amazon sidebar for the paperback version.

Chris Mould picked out some BIG moments for LITTLE people for the Guardian this week. You can read it here.