Venturing Out: The Littles Take a Trip

This is the second blog bost in a series about John Peterson’s The Littles books (1967-2002), you can find the first one here.

The second book, The Littles Take a Trip, was published in 1968. It follows the Littles as they venture out of the Biggs’ house and in search of other people like them. This is another theme I’ve encountered time and time again in miniature fantasies: the “last of their people” narrative, in which the little people think they’re the only ones of their kind (left) and go on a trip to find others. Often it’s the children of the little people who long for that sense of community and an escape from social isolation – parents or other grown-ups tend to be more risk-averse or set in their ways.

As is often the case with children’s books, the second book in the series recaps what the reader should know from the first book, but also embelishes this knowledge a little. In the very first chapter of The Littles Take a Trip we get a reminder of the Littles’ physique (they are small, they live in the walls of the Biggs’ house, they have tails), but we get this significant added comment: “They weren’t midgets or dwarfs or even elves. They were tinier than that” (Peterson 1968, p. 6). This is interesting for all sorts of reasons.

First, “midgets” and “dwarves” are terms related to physical stature and physique, as affected by genetic or medical conditions causing dwarfism – both terms are often considered derogatory nowadays. I wonder why the text needs to make these comparisons when it’s already given measurements for the Littles (6 inches for Mr Little, and shorter than that for other members of the family). Clearly, these are not realistic mesurements, even for human beings who are affected by dwarfism. Is there perhaps an implication that young children reading the books won’t have a sense of scale?

Having said that, the third comparative does not fit with the first two: there is no standardised measurements for elves, so that the Littles were “tinier than that” doesn’t quite work. But, then, the idea that little people in children’s fantasies may be mistaken for creatures of folklore, such as fairies, or elves, or gnomes, is not unusual – as, for example, in The Borrowers, in which Arietty contends that the borrowers are as divided as humans in believeing or not believing in fairies (she is, of course, herself, nothing of the sort, as she insists). But, on the other hand, some of the little people in children’s fantasies are indeed creatures of folklore: e.g. the gnomes in B.B.’s The Little Grey Men, or in Upton Sinclair’s The Gnonobile. So, as with the comparison of little people with mice I discussed in my last blog post, their relation to fairies, elves, etc. is equally slippery and unclear (or at least questioned) a lot of the time.

The other thing that is emphatically repeated at the opening of the book is that the Littles are “people” – just smaller versions of humanity, one assumes (but for those troublesome tails…). Tom and Lucy, the two children of the Little family, watch longingly Henry Bigg having a party and have this exchange:

As Tom and Lucy watched Henry Bigg and his friends, Lucy said, “They look silly without tails.” She started
giggling and couldn’t stop.
“Be quiet!” said Tom Little. “They might hear you.”
“I can’t help it,” said Lucy. She held her hand over her mouth.
“Besides, it’s not important,” said Tom. “Their not having tails, I mean.”
“If it’s not important, then why do we have them?” said Lucy.
“Because we do, that’s all,” said Tom. “We’re the same as they are, only smaller. People are people.”

(Peterson, 1968, p. 7)

So the Littles are just human beings in miniature, tail or no tail, and indeed Tom’s words echo the famous catch phrase from an earlier book about tiny people, Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! (1954): “A person’s a person, no matter how small”. The ethics of assigning value to tiny lives is another perennial theme in miniature fantasies.

But of course Lucy notes another big difference between humans and the Littles, which becomes the “inciting incident” of this story: that human children like Henry Bigg can have parties and lots of children to play with, whilst the Little children are isolated, the two siblings only having each other. And that’s where the text reveals that there are many more “tiny people” with tails, at least in the immediate area, but that survival and safety rules have established the custom of only one family per human household. The other tiny families also have appropriate names:

Tiny families like the Littles, the Fines, the Smalls, the Crums, the Shorts, the Buttons, and all their kith and kin, lived
all over the Big Valley. But they never got together.

(Ibid., p. 17)
Illustration for The Littles Take a Trip (1968), by Roberta Carter Clark

This leads to the introduction of a new character, Cousin Dinky, a daring adventurer, “the only person in the Big Valley to travel from house to house” (ibid., p. 17), delivering letters and messages for tiny grown-ups and children alike (apparently Lucy Little has a pen-friend in Tina Small). Cousin Dinky travels by means of his glider, which he has built himself.

A bit of a parenthesis here, well, a parenthetical paragraph: I think the text misses a trick not to give us any details on the materials Dinky used or how he learned to build a glider. The idea of little people flying is actually not that unusual in children’s miniature fantasies: the borrowers, when trapped in an attic in The Borrowers Aloft, build a balloon (by finding instructions in the Illustrated London News) and we are given details on the (everyday, small, human) materials they use, as well as how they solve various engineering problems. Earlier than Mary Norton’s series, in T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, Maria becomes obsessed with seeing the Lilliputians fly in a cheap airplane model, modified by further accoutruemnts (once more based on diagrams in the Illustrated London News) but things go (nearly fatally) wrong and the idea is abandoned. Other little people fly on birds (e.g. in Roald Dahl’s The Minpins), notably geese (e.g. in Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, and – I think in direct hommage to the former – in Terry Pratchett’s Nome trilogy).

Illustration for The Littles Take a Trip (1968), by Roberta Carter Clark

As the Littles eventually venture outdoors for a grand meeting of tiny people and their families at the house of the Smalls, they realise how hard it is to navigate a natural environment, rather than the domestic, man-made space they’re used to (we see this in The Borrowers Afield too, and in the subsequent Borrowers books). They are attacked by both sparrowhawks and later on a weasel, and they are impeded by the size of natural obstacles:

The walking was rough. They had to go around weeds and thick, wild bushes. It took a long time to go a short way. […]

It was tough going. They had to climb over pebbles and twigs. The thick grasses were over their heads. Uncle Pete almost got trapped in a mudhole filled with wet, rotting leaves.

(Ibid., pp. 63, 65)
Illustration for The Littles Take a Trip (1968), by Roberta Carter Clark

However, not all tiny people are that ill-suited to the (much bigger elements of the) natural environment. When the Littles are confronted by a skunk, they soon realise that another one of their kin rides on the animal, and has tamed it: Stubby Speck! We are told that Mr Speck and his family live in a tree in the woods, rather than a human house, and he calls the Littles “House Tinies” (ibid., p. 70), introducing for the first time the term “Tinies” for the “species”(?) the Littles belong too, and sub-diving this into further smaller caregories: House Tinies vs. Tree Tinies (later books introduce more such sub-categories). He notes that the Littles don’t look different to him and his family, but: “You do talk kinda different, though” (ibid.). The Specks’ house is described as follows:

The Stubby Speck family lived in the lowest branch of a giant oak tree. Steps had been cut into the bark of the great tree. They went around and around the trunk until they came to the lowest branch. The stairway looked like part of the tree. The Littles did not even see the stairs until Mr. Speck pointed them out. […]

Tom pointed to the lowest branch. “What’s that?” he said. “What are those round shiny things in the tree?”
“They’re my windows, son,” said Mr. Speck. “I made them myself from the bottoms of bottles that floated into the woods on the brook.”
“Wonderful!” said Mr. Little.
Mr. Speck spoke again, “The bark shutters are made so they’ll swing shut to hide the windows,” he said. “Sometimes Henry Bigg and his friends climb on our tree. When they do, we just shut everything up tight and wait for the boys to go away.”
Laer, the Littles and the Specks had lunch in the largest room in the tree. Sunlight streamed through the colored bottle windows. A long oak table grew right out of the floor. It was part of the living tree.

(Ibid., pp. 73-4)

What we have here, therefore, is the equivalent of a treehouse (something along the lines of the one in Swiss Family Robinson – the 1960s Disney film rather than the novel!) which combines organic elements (e.g. the table as an outgrowth of the tree) and man-made things in imitation of human material culture (the steps carved into the bark of the tree, however hidden/camouflaged; the windows made out of repurposing human rubbish; etc.). We hear later that the Specks’ ancestors initially lived in human houses (so their reproduction of human materialities makes sense) but left for the woods after two incidents of fire damage. But “house living must be getting better”, says Mr Speck (ibid., p. 80) and that brings us to another dichotomy the Specks introduce: self-sufficiency (with all its challenges) vs. dependency. The main bone of contention here is food.

Already in the first book of the series, The Littles (1967), it is made crystal-clear that the Littles “got all their food from the Biggs. When the Biggs had roast beef for dinner, the Littles had roast beef for dinner too” (Peterson 1967, p. 9). This dependency is so absolute that when the Newcombs arrive, the Littles get sick and tired of eating hamburger every day, and Mrs Little laments her lack of domestic skills:

“I suppose I should have learned to cook,” said Mrs. Little. She looked around the table. “Mrs. Bigg was such a good cook it didn’t seem necessary for me to cook too. I guess she spoiled us.

All the Littles nodded.

(Ibid., p. 22)

So, when we get to the Specks in The Littles Take a Trip, given that there are no humans to take food from, Mrs Little is quick to ask Mr Speck about the cooking arrangmeents:

“Your wife does her own cooking?” said Mrs. Little.

“She does many things well, ma’am,” said Stubby Speck, “but cooking is the jewel in her crown.”

(Ibid., pp. 71-2)

The food the Specks eat is more natural and rustic: “There was mushroom pie, dandelion green salad, sassafras tea sweetened with honey, and blackberries for dessert” (ibid., p. 75). Note also how the illustrations of the two families eating points to urban vs. rural stereotypes:

The general disposition and portrayal of the Specks is more old-fashioned in an American context too. Stubby Specks wears a cowboy hat, addresses the female members of the Littles family as “ma’am” and “miss”, takes off his hat and bows to them (ibid., p. 70) and generally speaks in a slight accent (see extracts above) – though my sense of American vernaculars is not reliable to speculate more on the effect intended here (comments very much welcome!). The Specks also face a harsher life – they always have to work hard to prepare for the winter, rather than relying on the Biggs’ central heating.

After the interlude at the Specks’ house, the Littles depart again for their original destination, and after a few more adventures (notably the weasel attack briefly mentioned above), they reach their destination, the house of the Smalls, and Lucy and Tom meet lots more children of their age. The book ends with the phrase: “And so began the first annual meeting of the tiny people of the Big Valley” (ibid., p. 95), which promises an expansion of the tinies world in following books.

A few more scattered thoughts on this book:

  • In a exchange between Tom and Lucy we find out their fears about what humans may do if they ever discover the Littles existed: “‘Maybe they’d put us in a museum,’ said Tom, ‘or a circus… […] And maybe they’d kill us […] They might think we were some kind of animal.’ He looked at his tail.” (p. 10) – the last possibility takes us back to the ideas explored in the previous blog post on little people and mice. But being displayed (for money) or studied are fears many tiny people share in children’s fantasies (e.g. the borrowers, Pratchett’s Nomes, etc.). The ethics of discovering a new species are very much entangled with these worries.
  • Another slightly unusual ethical dilemma this book raises are the ethics of watching/peeping: at the opening of the book Tom and Lucy bemoan their lack of friends outside their family and attribute to this lack their obsession with watching Henry Bigg and his friends. Tom says: “All we ever do is watch Henry Bigg and his friends […]. It’s creepy. We know all about Henry and his friends… and they don’t even know we’re alive” (p. 34). The wording is interesting here: “creepy” is a charged word. To make things even more problematic, Mr Little adds (addressing his wife): “They’ve been watching too much […]. We’ll have to set a time limit. It’s no good for them to watch so much. We tiny people must have lives of our own.” (ibid.). Their parents seem to consider this “watching” as something equivalent to the fear that kids watch too much TV, and live their lives through a screen.

Appendix: Tiny Materialities

Once more, as with the first book of the series, The Littles, I was surprised to find fewer examples of repurposing everyday small objects for different uses as featured in many miniature fantasies. Here’s the crop from this book:

In the text:

  • The Smalls, in anticipation of their guests, “set about making extra beds from some cigar boxes Mr. Small had been saving for years” (p. 41). Famously, Arietty’s bedroom is made out of cigar boxes.

In Roberta Carter Clark’s illustrations:

Illustration for The Littles Take a Trip (1968), by Roberta Carter Clark
  • In the scene below in which Uncle Pete looks at the mirror, we have (from left to right): a stool made of foud nails and the cap of bottle or jar, a candle holder made out of a vitamin bottle, the fireplace made out of woodern spools, and a pouf made out of a cushion on a tuna can (p. 20).
  • Cousin Dinky sits on a wooden spool to play his guitar (p. 33)
Illustration for The Littles Take a Trip (1968), by Roberta Carter Clark

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