“The Princess and the Pea” is another tale by Hans Christian Andersen, though he himself said that it was a story he remembered from his childhood. The Brothers Grimm included a similar story in one of their collections in the 1840s, but removed it when they found that Andersen had published his a decade earlier.
In the story, a prince searches in vain for a suitable princess to marry. After he returns home in despair, a storm brews up, and a sodden stranger appears at the door asking shelter. She claims to be a princess, but is so bedraggled that the prince is skeptical. The prince’s mother offers her a bed for the night, and devises a test for the girl.
Having placed a pea onto the bed, she piles 20 mattresses and 20 featherbeds (sometimes now replaced with “quilts,” since most kids won’t know what a featherbed was) onto it. The mysterious visitor hardly sleeps a wink, and is bruised in the morning. This preternatural sensitivity proves that she is a real princess, and the prince marries her.
This is such a short story that you may want to introduce several different forms of the story to your class.
- John Cech has done a classic picture book version of The Princess and the Pea.
- Lauren Child has recently done a picture book version with illustrations combining witty drawings with dollhouse photos. Click the link to see inside the book.
- Francesc Boada did a bilingual version, Princess and the Pea/La Princesa y el Guisante
- Rachel Isadora has done a version set in Africa.
- Variations on the theme include Mimi Grey’s witty The Very Smart Pea and the Princess-to-be, which tells the story from the point of view of the pea.
- Alain Vaes‘s updated version has a resourceful heroine. (A warning here — our links go to Amazon, where you can usually look inside the books and see the pictures. In this case, you get inner pages from a completely different book. Sorry!)
- Fans of Janet Perlman’sCinderella Penguin, or, The Little Glass Flipper will love The Penguin and the Pea.
- Janet Stevens did hers with a lion for a protagonist.
- Tony Johnston has done a cowboy version with a male hero, called The Cowboy and the Black-Eyed Pea. It’s a lot of fun to read aloud.
- The Princess and the Pizza, by the wonderful Mary Jane Auch, involves an entirely different set of tests and a completely different ending.
- Mary Engelbreit included this story in her Nursery and Fairy Tales Collection.
There are online versions as well:
- You can read the original story online.
- Read and hear it at Storynory.
- See the Fractured Fairy Tales version below. There are so many differences that this is a good candidate for Venn diagram practice.
- Fixed Fairy Tales has a version with a different ending — the princess says that she won’t marry someone who played such a mean trick on her!
There are some video versions, too:
- Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre: The Complete Collection includes this story. Duvall’s performances are always good, and true to the traditional story without being unsuitable for kids.
- The musical takeoff, Once Upon a Mattress, is available on DVD, and is such a popular choice for community and high school theater that you might be able to find a live performance locally (feeling brave? Try Once Upon a Mattress : Vocal Selections in your classroom). The DVD has some very slightly risque moments; you’ll want to preview it to determine its suitability for your class.
Once everyone is completely familiar with the story, move on to cross-curricular connections.
- If you do Letter of the Week, use this story for P week. Prince, princess, pea, plenty, and put are in the original, and retellings may have more.
- Scholastic has a pair of books by Justin McCory Martin that use fairy tales to work on English mechanics, and “The Princess and the Pea” is featured in both. Funny Fairy Tale Proofreading has “The Poem of the Pea,” which starts out “The princess lett out a sad, sad sigh…” and Funny Fairy Tale Grammar has a retelling of the story with 19 prepositions to underline. Each book uses a variety of familiar tales to practice numerous issues in grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.
- “My Sister, the Pea” is an essay telling about an experience from the author’s life. Use this essay as an example of an autobiographical writing, and have students write their own.
- Here is a brief essay suggesting how to use this story for an advertisement for mattresses. Challenge your class to make up their own ads based on fairy tales you’ve studied.
- This would be a good time for a seed collage. Glue rows of various seeds and dried beans to paper to form the stack of mattresses.
- Have each student color, draw, or paint a design covering an entire sheet of paper, and cut the paper into strips — enough for the entire class. Divide all the strips so that each student has one of each design. Have the kids choose twenty of the designs and paste them onto a sheet of paper to form the bed for the princess. They can draw the rest of the scene, and glue a dried pea at the bottom of the bed.
- This story is very good for simple math. Use the mattress art idea above and add some math practice by having students count out the mattresses, use them for patterning, or practice combinatorix and calculation before they settle on an arrangement for their art project.
- You can also do this as a center with a package of cheap sponges for mattresses. Put ideas for using the mattresses on cards (for example, “Count and stack 20 mattresses. Measure the mattresses and write the height of the stack on your paper.”), add a doll to serve as the princess, and store it in a shoe box.
- Have preschoolers take turns rolling a die and placing the indicated number of craft foam mattresses onto toy beds (you could also use index cards for the beds). The winner is the one with the largest number of mattresses on his or her bed at the end of the game.
- Fairy tales aren’t supposed to be realistic, of course. This one, however, lends itself to testing. Make a great lesson on the scientific method by designing an experiment to test exactly what thickness of soft furnishings a pea can be felt through. Science is all about sensory observation, and this experiment will be especially interesting since it relies on touch. Figuring out how to be sure the pea is perceptible is part of the challenge, but you might get the kids started by suggesting trying a dishtowel before moving on to quilts or mattresses.
- I like the idea of using this little story as a lead-in to a study of genetics, because of Gregor Mendel’s famous pea experiments. Startle your older students by sitting down cozily at the beginning of the class and reading “The Princess and the Pea” to them. Ask what they think “a real princess” might mean. Point out that a hypersensitivity to peas under the mattress would pretty well have to be a genetic condition. Then head over to these computer games: Mendel’s peas lab examines meiosis, alleles, Mendel’s experiments, and more. The activity, “The Princess and the Wrinkled Peas,” at the same site, is an online computer game about DNA. The Pea Breeding Simulator is a simulator, not a game, but it complements the previous site very well. “DNA from the Beginning” offers plenty of clear background data on the subject.
- One of the premises of the story is this: “If you are a princess, you will feel a pea under lots of mattresses.” Other implications might be, “If you are a princess, you will be very delicate” and “If you cannot feel a pea under lots of mattresses, you are not worthy of marrying a prince.” List as many implications as possible and evaluate them.
- This is an odd story, even for a fairy tale. How can someone so delicate live in the world? What is a real princess doing out in the rain by herself? What was wrong with all those other princesses? Have the class track down logical inconsistencies and implausible aspects and brainstorm possible explanations. Challenge older students to write their own prequels or backstories to make “The Princess and the Pea” more plausible.
- In some ways, this story is like a job interview. The prince is looking for a princess, and he interviews a number of candidates before settling on a test. Have students list the characteristics they would look for in a princess, and devise a test that would help them find the best candidate. Notice also that the rest of the princesses were never given the test, but were evaluated according to different (and undisclosed) criteria.
- Since the prince’s mother gave the test and must have been the one to reveal the results of the test, the marriage between the princess and the prince must have been her idea. Arranged marriages were normal in the Middle Ages, not uncommon in the 1800s when this story was written, and still take place today in many countries. Research arranged marriages. While there might be some interesting discussions around the pros and cons of arranged marriages, it is worth digging a little deeper on this question, and considering such things as the reasons for the custom, the potential for abuse, and the variety of ideas about courtship and marriage to be found in the world.
- What’s the moral of this story? Some suggestions I’ve heard include “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” “Don’t settle for something that is not perfect,” “Persevere,” and “Don’t be so lazy that you toss and turn all night instead of getting up and getting rid of that pea.” Brainstorm all the possible morals you can, and then have the kids vote on their favorite.
More picture books
And check out our reproducible ebook, too.