Sunday, March 21, 2010

Retelling Tiny Tales

“Most of the people who will walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with short steps.”
-- Hans Christian Andersen



Artist Sylvia Long's Thumbelina, new from Chronicle Books, offers a lushly illustrated version of Hans Christian Andersen's beloved tale about a thumb-size girl and her larger-than-life adventures. The book’s jewel-toned paintings depict the story's settings—from light and airy meadows to Mole's dark and dismal underground home—while whimsical details bring the classic cast of characters to life and make this story-time favorite a visual feast.

The daughter of a soil scientist, Long told an interviewer a couple of years ago that it’s important for today’s children to be exposed to the beauty of nature through books because “more and more, it seems that children’s education takes place only in the classroom, online, or on TV. To get excited about nature, they have to be out in it – with someone who has passion for it, and knowledge about it. Once they start to look, they’ll see how amazing it is.”

Long, who lives in Scottsdale Arizona, said she loves taking walks in all sorts of places, picking up seeds, rocks, feathers, bleached animal bones, snake sheds, shells, etc. And, she takes lots of pictures, too.

Long's illustrations add to the romantic tale of Thumbelina in a way that will delight both children and adults, refreshing a fairy story that has endured for about 175 years. In all Andersen wrote about 190 fairy tales between 1835-72, including the "Tin Soldier, "The Snow Queen", "The Little Mermaid", "Thumbelina", "The Little Match Girl", and the "The Ugly Duckling". I believe that rather spoon-feeding commercial adaptations, it's best to go to the original source.

What I like best about this tale of Thumbelina, however, is not the idea of a little woman flitting about in the woods searching after a husband, but her interaction with the natural environment, beautifully rendered through Long’s modern illustrations. Conversations with moles and frogs are delightful, even if the sentiments are mundane. For example, the story tells that in the spring the mended swallow says to Thumbelina: “Because of your tender care, I shall soon regain my strength and be able to fly again. . . . And he asked her to go with him.”

Thumbelina thought of the green woods and meadows thick with spring flowers that the swallow would visit on his journey, but in the end declined. “Farewell then,” replied the swallow. “I hope you find the happiness you deserve.” The exchange offers the chance to talk with even the smallest children about bird migration and natural environmental changes like the seasons. It also places girls outdoors, actively engaged with the natural world.

Swallows travel more than 12,000 miles round trip on their annual migration to Argentina and return to California's Mission San Juan Capistrano each year on St. Joseph's Day, March 19. It has been a fiesta day at the mission since 1777. The quick-winged swallows eat mainly flying insects, including mosquitoes and other harmful species, so people benefit not only from their beauty but also for their environmental role in maintaining nature's balance.

Long’s Thumbelina offers the chance for a simple natural history lesson, and it also provides the happiness and enchantment to be found outdoors that all children deserve. The book presents nature on the page in its diverse beauty to be imparted through the voice of loved ones as they read and discuss.

I’m wrapping copies of this new edition of Thumbelina for Easter gifts and sending them to grand kids instead of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans because surely this newly illustrated version of a time-honored tale will be more nourishing and last a whole lot longer.

Sylvia Long is the award-winning illustrator of many books for children, including Sylvia Long's Mother Goose and An Egg Is Quiet. $17.99, full-color throughout, suitable for ages 4-8. Available from online booksellers or at www.chroniclebooks.com

Sylvia Long's Web address: www.sylvia-long.com
Information about the work of Hans Christian Anderson is available at www.andersen.sdu.dk