How We Created Our Homeschool's Studio Ghibli Literature Class (Without a Curriculum)

Literature has always been a no-brainer in our homeschool. My daughter, who is now 15 and who has joked more than once the title of her biography should be Homeschool Experiment in Action is naturally inclined toward language arts, and I’m a well-documented English nerd. We’d never had trouble making a literature class work, and while I was ready to panic about pretty much everything about homeschooling high school, I felt fairly confident that we could handle the literature part.

We knew we’d be doing U.S. History this year, and it made sense to weave U.S. literature (along with philosophy, art, and music) into that, but we also wanted to explore comparative literature.1 Comparative literature sounds fancy — and I guess sometimes it can be — but it’s really just looking at works from different cultures, eras, languages, etc., and considering things that are the same and different about them. Adaptations are a great place to start with comparative literature because you’re working from the same source material, which makes it easier to spot similarities and differences, and my daughter had the brilliant idea of focusing on Studio Ghibli films. Several of them are based on books we know and love — The Borrowers, When Marnie Was There, A Wizard of Earthsea, Howl’s Moving Castle — and we thought it could be fun to use these book-film combos as a jumping-off point for in-depth textual analysis.

Maybe somewhere there’s a curriculum that does this, but the great thing about comparative literature is that you don’t need a curriculum — just a willingness to really dig into the text and follow where it leads you. I’m going to break down how we pulled the class together as we went, starting with just a reading/watching list, using one book-movie combo as an example.

This wasn’t our only literature class, and we deliberately chose familiar books for the reading list. Critical reading requires a different set of skills — you’re not just following the story, considering the characters, looking for themes and symbols. You’re pausing to consider why an author might choose a particular word instead of another one, looking behind the curtain of words for what the author doesn’t mention and what that omission might mean, considering what the story you’re reading says about the way the author understood the world. Sometimes it’s easier to do this with a book you know. I often joke with my children that I have to read every book three times because the first time I get caught up in the story, the second time I appreciate all the details I missed the first time, and the third time, I can really dig into the text. Rereading is one of the best tools a critical reader can use. So while elsewhere we’d be focusing on more challenging books, for this class, I wanted to start with the familiarity of rereading.

So we started with The Borrowers, a book we’ve both read many times together and apart. Mary Norton’s tale of tiny people who live in the nooks and crannies of old houses and “borrow” what they need from their larger neighbors is a children’s classic, playing with the idea that the everyday world we inhabit only represents a tiny fraction of what’s going on around us all the time. As we read it, pencil highlighters in hand2, we found lots of things to interest us. Reading it purely for fun3, we’d never really thought about the book in terms of colonialism, but this time, we paid attention to the fact that the events of the book were happening right at the height of the British empire. It was interesting to consider how colonization might reflect the plight of the Borrowers in the book, who — as Arrietty tells the boy — have been growing fewer and fewer.

We also found ourselves talking a lot about who was telling the story and how reliable that person was. Kind of like the world of the Borrowers, the story exists within layers: First, the third-person narrator (who may be grown-up Kate) who introduces Kate and Mrs. May; then Mrs. May, as she tells Kate about her brother; and then, finally, Mrs. May becomes almost an omniscient third-person narrator, describing the thoughts and feelings of her brother, Arrietty, and (to a lesser extent) other characters. How much is Mrs. May imagining or extrapolating based on what her brother told her when he was young? How much did her brother imagine or extrapolate? Who is that first third-person narrator anyway, and why has she picked this story to tell?

With the book fresh in our minds, we were ready to dive into The Secret World of Arrietty, Studio Ghibli’s 2010 adaptation of The Borrowers. Just as with reading, turning a critical eye to cinema usually requires multiple viewings. We watched it once for fun, with popcorn and the whole family, and then again the two of us with our notebooks and pencils in hand.4

The movie moves the action from the Victorian English countryside to modern-day Tokyo, but it generally follows the book’s plot, with Arrietty meeting the human boy (he gets a name in the movie), forging a friendship, and ultimately having to escape with her family from the house and into the world outside when threatened by the exterminator. Taking the story out of Victorian England—basically, the land of fairy tales and whimsy — changes the story immediately, we decided. The Borrowers was written in the 1950s, long after the famously well-mannered society named for Queen Victoria had ended, and setting the story in the past immediately made it plausible: Sure, there might not be tiny people living in houses right now, but there could have been back then, right? Pulling the story into the modern world is insisting on the possibility of magic, which feels like a brave choice.

Then there’s the boy. In The Borrowers, Mrs. May’s unnamed brother is kind of — well — a brat.5 The movie's Sho (Shawn in the dubbed version) is a nice kid with a serious health condition who’s anxious about an upcoming operation. Why does this change matter so much? After all, in both cases, the plot runs pretty much the same — whether the boy’s encounter with Arrietty and her family changes him or just confirms who he already is doesn’t really significantly affect what happens in the story. One clue, we decided, might lie in the ending. In the book, the story ends abruptly — “and that,” said Mrs. May, laying down her crochet hook, “is really the end.” — but Kate and Mrs. May keep the story going by imagining what the Borrowers’ life in the wild might be like. Like the layered narrators that begin the book, this ending makes The Borrowers as much about stories and how we tell them as about the actual adventures of the Clock family. The movie, on the other hand, begins and ends with the boy’s perspective — the adventure with the Borrowers is just a part of his story. (The dubbed version, especially, emphasizes this with Sho’s voice-over narration that he comes through his surgery fine and enjoys hearing stories about small things disappearing in the neighborhood.) This makes The Secret World of Arrietty a coming-of-age story—Sho’s coming-of-age story.

This, we decided, ties in well with Japanese philosophy, which has borrowed (get it?) ideas from other cultures but always emphasizes the importance of everyday experience. The Borrowers, we decided, continues the West’s long (and often problematic) division between body and mind6, so we went back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave before diving into Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which works well as introductory text for considering Zen Buddhism.7 We worked through these two texts side by side, considering how Plato’s dualism influenced The Borrowers versus how the mindfulness and simplicity of Zen Buddhism informed the Studio Ghibli adaptation. One great example of this we found in the two versions’ treatment of the natural world: In both the book and the film versions, Arrietty yearns for the freedom of the outside world. But while the author of The Borrowers lavishes elaborate descriptions on the minuscule, Victorian-esque home the Clocks have built beneath the floorboards, the world outside remains mysterious — only at the end is there the briefest mention of it. It is, my daughter decided, “an inside book.” The Secret World of Arrietty, however, reads as a love story to the nature world. Its dreamy depictions of elastic orbs of water, spring flowers stretching as tall and far as forests, and drifting petals as seen from Arrietty’s tiny perspective are magical. We see Arrietty through Sho’s eyes, which requires him to put himself in her (tiny) shoes, to change his own perspective.

Similarly, the Clocks are less caricatures and more grounded in Studio Ghibli’s adaptation. Homily is less shrill and panicked, Pod is less Homer Simpson, and Arrietty — who, in the book, sometimes takes risks that just seem incredibly foolish8 — is brave and adventurous but not reckless. In the book, my daughter pointed out, the Clocks have almost-human names and almost-human homes, and their behaviors feel almost-human, too, often exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness. Though their tininess is even more obvious in the film, the Clocks don’t seem almost-human, like caricatures of everyday people — they just seem like people. We compared this to the Victorian obsession with Japan reflected in art — Tissot’s young Ladies Looking at Japanese Art is complex and layered, with tons of tiny details that you can tease apart, while Japanese art from the same era is often deliberately simple, focused on capturing a single image, scene, or moment.

There were real similarities between the simple-but-ultimately-more-satisfyingly-complex characterizations in the Studio Ghibli adaptation and the sometimes overwrought-to-the- point-of-stretching-believability characterizations of the Clocks in the novel. We spent a lot of time considering the ways that being able to show Arrietty’s life through the medium of film allowed a more nuanced character development, just as the simpler art left more room for contemplative interpretation.

And that’s really how comparative literature, at its simplest, can work in a homeschool high school. You don’t have to go in with a plan, just with two good texts that you want to consider together. Your plan reveals itself as you explore together—it can point you toward philosophy, science, history, theory, art, music... well, you get the idea. It’s the kind of open-ended inquiry that allows authentic learning—and, honestly, it’s fun.

Nerdy Notes

1 This is obviously a dip-your-toes-in-the-water introduction to comparative literature, not a full or comprehensive exploration.

2 I know, not everyone likes writing in books. I do. But even if I didn’t, I might recommend it for new-to-critical-reading students. The great thing about reading with a highlighter is that you can mark interesting bits as you go — you don’t feel obligated to comment on what makes them interesting, which you might if you were reading with a pencil — and you don’t have to remember what you found interesting, which can be surprisingly hard. It’s easy to flip back through and literally see what sparked an idea.

3 A totally valid life choice

4 It’s a shame that you can’t highlight movies as you go, but we have a little workaround. I start a digital timer when the movie starts, and when we see something we want to go back to, we jot down the time so that we can easily go back and review. If someone gets really excited, we can also just hit pause. (That’s another reason to make your second viewing your academic viewing—you know what happens next, so pausing mid-movie doesn’t ruin the flow.)

5 Speaking of comparative literature, we kept drawing parallels between Brother May and Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. Both are spoiled kids, reared in India and cross about being in England; both end up finding a purpose that ends up making them kinder, more likable people.

6 I blame Descartes.

7 Japanese philosophy is a gorgeous, complex hodgepodge of Eastern and Western thought, and Zen Buddhism is just a tiny, tiny piece of it. I chose to focus on Zen because I think it embraces a lot of the ideas that carry across Japanese philosophy: respect for nature, compassion, the significance of the everyday world. You could argue that Shintoism or Kokugaku or some other school of thought would have been a better place to start, and I wouldn’t get defensive. This is just where I felt comfortable starting.

8 My daughter insists that this is because her mom, Homily, is constantly panicking about everything so that Arrietty has lost her sense of proportion when it comes to panicking. Homily thinks everything is dangerous, but Arrietty has discovered many things aren’t dangerous, so she assumes nothing is dangerous. I’m glad her dad is the one is giving driving lessons.


This was originally published in the spring 2017 issue of HSL.