Thumbeline – Richard & Clara Winston (translators); Lizbeth Zwerger (Illustrator)

Thumbeline is a another book I picked up in my continuing hunt for Lizbeth Zwerger’s illustrations.  This particular version (1980 Morrow Eagle Library edition) featured a new translation (from the Danish) of the Hans Christian Andersen story to go along with the Zwerger illustrations (or vice versa I suppose).

The simple yet poignant tale follows Thumbeline (more popularly known as Thumbelina) as she goes through a series of rough encounters on her way to finding both a place to call home and a prince for a husband.

Born in flower to a woman who desperately wanted a child, Thumbeline was first stolen by a hideous toad who want her to be the bride for her son.  She was able to escape thanks to the help of a fish but shortly was captured by a June Bug.  The June Bug community, however, rejected her and eventually her captor gave into the peer pressure and released her.

Thumbeline escapes freezing to death thanks to the kindness of a old field mouse who takes her in as long as she takes care of the den and tells her entertaining stories. The catch is she wants to marry her off to her neighbor the mole. Thumbeline is not interested in marrying the mole but feels trapped not wanting to hurt the feelings of the field mouse who saved her.

She helps a swallow left for dead, however, and her good deed is rewarded.  The swallow, who had flow off after his recuperation, just happened to be flying by as she was saying good buy to the sun and preparing to marry the mole and live underground for the rest of her days. This time she agrees to go with him.

And after a long flight they arrive in the warm country where the swallow makes his home. And when Thumbeline picks out a flower to make her home she is shocked to find a little man her size!  The little man was the spirit of the flower, every flower had a spirit in that land, but he was also King of all the flowers with a crown on his head and wings on his back. He asked her to be his bride and become the queen. She accepts and is given a pair of wings of her own. The couple lives happily ever after while the swallow flies back to Danish to whisper his tale to a children’s book author.

If you would like to read more on the story and its translation, literary criticism, etc. check out that respected online resource known as Wikipedia.  That entry includes this explanation:

Folklorist Maria Tatar sees “Thumbelina” as a runaway bride story and notes that it has been viewed as an allegory about arranged marriages, and a fable about being true to one’s heart that upholds the traditional notion that the love of a prince is to be valued above all else. She points out that in Hindu belief, a thumb-sized being known as the innermost self or soul dwells in the heart of all beings, human or animal, and that the concept may have migrated to European folklore and taken form as Tom Thumb and Thumbelina, both of whom seek transfiguration and redemption. She detects parallels between Andersen’s tale and the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, and, notwithstanding the pagan associations and allusions in the tale, notes that “Thumbelina” repeatedly refers to Christ‘s suffering and resurrection, and the Christian concept of salvation.

I will be honest, I just like the cute story with the pretty pictures.  And Zwerger’s illustrations are gorgeous of course.  Soft and yet emotionally evocative.  Capturing the characters and adding an almost melancholy sense to the fairy tale.  They are so beautiful that I am tempted to use them as art prints. But the book lover side of me just can’t see myself mutilating a book to get to the art.

School Library Journal isn’t quite as taken:

Andersen’s tale of a tiny lass no bigger than one’s thumb is familiar to most children, and there is nothing particularly new in this version. The translation differs very little from other editions (notably Michael Hague’s Favorite Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales Holt, 1981) but at times seems flat and static. This is a longer, fuller version than is often found; there may not be enough illustrations to hold the interest of younger listeners. The pictures themselves owe their dreamlike quality to a subdued wash background, and the characters, the humans in particular, with their withered-apple faces, are drolly portrayed. There are occasional delightfully surprising details, such as a cat peering out of the old witch’s cloak. Useful for libraries which need to broaden a folk tale collection or where another edition of this story is needed.

I will agree on the picture aspect for young kids, although my kids seemed to enjoy it when I read it to them, but maybe I just like the drollness more …

Anyways, I am a fan of Zwerger so I am far from unbiased.  And I don’t bring a particularly critical eye to the fairy tales either.  Given that I rarely spend more than five bucks for these type of books (at library sales or used book stores) they seem like fun acquisitions with no risk.

Any other children’s book illustration fans out there who do this sort of thing?  Curious if I have any other bibliophiles out there who like to collect particular illustrators or genres, etc.  Leave a comment if you do.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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