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Thumbeline

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by Hans Christian Andersen
translated by Anthea Bell
illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Lisbeth Zwerger's illustrations make Hans Christian Andersen's beloved fairy tale, Thumbeline, come to life in a new way.  Zwerger's palette - warm browns, grays, and shades of white with touches of gold, blue, green, orange and red - gives the illustrations a patina that reminds the reader that this is an old, often-told tale.  The illustrations have none of the bright, screeching colors of a Disney movie, yet their warmth invites us into the story and bids us become acquainted with Thumbeline, her mother, and the many friends she meets.

 

Zwerger delicately, compassionately and authentically personifies her characters:  the look of hope on the face of Thumbeline's mother-to-be as she receives the "barleycorn" from the witch; gentle, innocent, beautifully clad Thumbeline as she is first revealed to her mother; Thumbeline's extraordinary tenderness as she lays her head on the swallow's breast in farewell; and even the speculative look on the fieldmouse's face as the mouse presses Thumbeline to marry the mole she dislikes. 

 

Without Zwerger's drawings, Andersen's tale would be interesting but unreal.  Instead, Zwerger's illustrations make a fairy tale world into a reality through:

 

  1. Historical European clothing - babushka, apron, cloaks and shoes reminiscent of sabots;
  2. Fabric colors and patterns that remind the viewer of Scandinavian folk art;
  3. Thumbeline's hair - a red-gold, never-been-cut, long braid; 
  4. Personification of the animals - all have human-like facial expressions:
    1. The toad's look of determination and admiration
    2. Fieldmouse's kind face as she welcomes Thumbeline, with her arm around the little maiden
    3. Human clothing for all - a scarf, matching tail warmer and shoes for the fieldmouse; a coat and shoes for the mole; and a valise and dapper scarf and hat for Sparrow.  Sparrow doffs his hat in proper gentlemanly style when he greets Thumbeline.
  5. Proportion - Zwerger keeps Thumbeline's tiny size in proportion relative to the other creatures she encounters.
    1. With Thumbeline sitting in the flower and asleep in the walnut shell, we see how small she is.  The toad, holding Thumbeline's tiny shoes between two toes, is huge in comparison. 
    2. Thumbline is not nearly as big as the June beetle that whisks her away.
    3. She is tiny compared to the sparrow, whose death Thumbeline mourns.
  6. Viewer's perspective - Although all of the story's characters are small, Zwerger's illustrations make the characters fill the pages.  There is little in the background to distract the viewer from focusing on, and being drawn into, the story.  The few background items - a book, the weaving spiders, and a flower - accentuate proportions and the characters' sizes.

 Hans Christian Andersen gives the story its only definite cultural marker, a mention of the setting on the last page.  When Thumbeline's sparrow friend makes his goodbyes to the Prince of the Flowers and Thumbeline, the author notes:  ". . . it had come to be the season for [the sparrow] to fly away from the warm countries . . . back again to Denmark [italics added]," implying that the rest of the story had taken place in Denmark.

 

Anthea Bell translated this fairy tale from the original Danish.  Her translation gives a feeling of the time period more than cultural markers.  For example, her spelling of "water-lilies" and use of the word "larder" give an old-time feel to the story.  Bell's words also give the reader a couple of puzzles. 

 

  1. The creature that abducted Thumbeline - described as a toad, "big and ugly and wet" - is probably not a toad.  Toads have dry, not wet, skin and unlike frogs, they live in dryer areas, not aquatic ones.  Zwerger more appropriately illustrated a greenish, spotted, frog-like creature with long hind legs to go with the aquatic language in the text and the creature's river bank dwelling. 
  2. When the fieldmouse outlines for Thumbeline the advantages of marriage to the mole, the fieldmouse states:  "You will have both wool and linen to wear, and underclothes and household linen, when you are married to the mole [italics added]."  Why did Bell choose the word "underclothes?"   Was this a direct translation from the Danish?  This word could evoke giggles from readers and listeners who wonder, Did Thumbeline not have underclothes?  Did the translator mean something else instead, such as "undergarments made of the finest, softest fabrics?"
  3. One small puzzle is also mentioned in a New York Times book review.[i]  "The final picture is lit by a bright white flower, a throne for Thumbeline and her prince. Although the words describe her as wearing his crown, that detail is absent."  Instead, the Prince still wears his crown, while Thumbeline is bareheaded.  The reviewer goes on to note that some observant "child will point this out to you."

Despite the crown, this "final picture" epitomizes the tale's reality and its magic.  Here, Zwerger depicts a dream come true.  The Prince of the Flowers, "pale and clear as if he were made of glass," with the "loveliest bright wings on his shoulders," sits on a beautiful white flower with his arm around his wife-to-be, Thumbeline (now renamed Maia), who also has her own pair of beautiful, gossamer, white wings.  Thumbeline has found a safe home, people like her, and a Prince whom she loves.

 

 

Andersen, Hans Christian. 1985. Thumbeline. Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Picture Book Studio. ISBN 0-88708-006-5



[i] Kuskin, Karla. 1985. Review of Thumbeline. The New York Times Book Review. (November 3): 35.

 

 

This review was written as part of a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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