Some children’s books prove especially hard acts to follow. Any story about tiny people secretly interacting with human beings, for example, is fated to draw comparisons with Mary Norton’s beloved series The Borrowers (1952), which told the story of a family of such people who live clandestinely in the walls and floor of an old English house. (”Borrowers don’t steal… except from human beings.”) The Minute Minders, an enchanting debut novel by Mary Murphy, is also about tiny people – and it is to Murphy’s great credit that it doesn’t feel borrowed at all.
The story is told by Stevie Clipper, a tiny person, or “fidder”; following the mysterious disappearance of his mother and two siblings, Stevie lives alone with his father in a cabin outside the fictional town of Linbradan. Murphy lends credence to this imaginative world by dint of careful detail. Fidders live in furnished, fully plumbed houses – “Think of our homes like doll’s houses maybe, but with stoves that heat, and toilets that flush, and lights that switch on and off” – and they have schools and hospitals and shops, “all the people who make up a community”. In terms of transport, however, they rely on a device called a “locator”, which looks much like a mobile phone: “You type in where you want to go to, press the ‘locate’ button, and whirr FIZZ… there you are.”
While Norton’s “borrowers” did their borrowing from “human beans”, the fidders – in keeping with the increasingly moral tone of children’s fiction today – are more altruistic. Their function is to help humans by responding to unhappy “vibrations”, picked up by trained fidders called “Listeners”, and then leaping into their locators to assist with anything from injustice and loneliness to parents whose babies are depriving them of sleep.
Fidders are abundant – “Fidders live all around you. There are probably some living in your own home” – but they must go about in secret: “We can’t let you know we exist. That’s the rule, anyway.” But when Stevie and his father are assigned to help a young girl whose parents have lost their home, the rules become increasingly hard to follow.
Murphy’s illustrations will be familiar to readers of her 40 or so picture books, including much-loved titles such as Good Night Like This (2015) and How Kind! (2002), a farmyard story about the infectious nature of kindness. As with her drawings, her writing lends a sense of cosy domesticity to even the strangest imaginary world. “I just lay on the ground under a buttercup, looking between the shining yellow petals to the sky,” is typical of the dreamy, yet quietly precise narration.
The Minute Minders runs to 300 pages, and is recommended for readers of eight-plus; but much of its charm lies in the same qualities that distinguish Murphy’s books for toddlers – simple prose, some gentle suspense, and a plot in which good deeds save the day.
The Minute Minders is published by Pushkin. To order your copy for £8.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books