A spunky little girl named Kate is making a quilt with Mrs. May, a nice old lady who lives with her when… wait a minute. Where did that crochet hook go? It was just over here a minute ago. Seriously—where is it?
Oh no, Mrs. May says, the house must be full of borrowers.
Not borrowers! Anything but borrowers! Wait a minute, what in the world are they? Kate begs Mrs. May to tell the story of how she first heard of the little people called borrowers from her brother.
It seems that in the great big house where Mrs. May's brother was recovering from an illness, there was a very big grandfather clock, and below the clock there was a hole, home to three borrowers: little Arrietty, her mother, Homily, and her father, Pod.
Pod and Homily furnish their house with the stuff they "borrow" from upstairs: letters to wallpaper their room, postage stamps to hang on their wall, and old chess pieces that they use as statues. Arrietty loves to write in her mini diary (which is as big as she is), but she can't help but feel kind of cooped up living with her parents. She wants adventure! Excitement!
And that can only mean one thing. Arrietty wants to go upstairs and learn how to be a borrower with her father.
Arrietty's parents are not happy with this, especially because the last time Pod went borrowing, he got "seen" by a human. But they agree when they realize that Arrietty's wanderlust might make her do something stupid—like escape on her own like her cousin, Eggletina (who got eaten by a cat). Meow.
Arrietty can't believe how amazing the world upstairs is. Sunlight! Grass! Shoe-scrapers! She wanders off on her own until she encounters an eye. A huge human eye that belongs to a boy.
Arrietty and the boy don't get off to the best start, but they soon become friends. Things go great for a while, until Pod catches Arrietty and the boy hanging out. Uh-oh.
Pod tells his daughter that "human beans" (that's borrower-speak for "human beings") are not to be trusted—and now they are in great danger. Thanks a lot, Arrietty.
That night, when Homily, Pod, and Arrietty are in bed, the roof suddenly lifts off their house. It's the boy! Dun dun dun.
Instead of being the catastrophe the family thinks it will be, the boy brings gifts: furniture from the dollhouse to decorate their home. And so begins a beautiful friendship of borrowing.
That is, until the mean and nasty Mrs. Driver, the cook, realizes that things are going missing. She and the grumpy gardener, Crampfurl, discover the borrowers' home, and threaten to call the police and the exterminator. Yikes.
The boy rushes to tell the Borrowers that he'll help them escape to the great outdoors. But just as he's grabbing some supplies, mean Mrs. Driver catches him and pulls a wicked stepmother, locking the poor guy in his room.
And that's the end of the story.
Really? Well, sort of.
Mrs. May explains to Kate that "stories never really end. They can go on and on and on. It's just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them" (19.15).
Together, they finish the story by imagining how the policeman who come the next day don't believe Mrs. Driver, and that although the exterminator tries to smoke the borrowers out, the boy knocks a hole in the grating to give them some breathing room.
Mrs. May reveals that she went up to the house herself, where she found Homily's little teapot and Arrietty's diary. Hey, that means the borrowers must have safely escaped, right?
Mrs. May smiles and says she's not so sure…