Hans Christian Andersen’s story of Thumbelina is the tale of a tiny girl, no bigger than her mother’s thumb, who grows in a flower from a magic seed. Her mother is delighted with her and she has a happy life until a toad comes and steals her away to serve as a bride for her son.
Thumbelina escapes with the help of some sympathetic fish and later moves in with a mouse who tries to marry her off to a mole. She doesn’t care for the idea and instead escapes on the back of a swallow whose life she has saved. The bird takes her to live among flowers, where she finds a fairy prince just the same size as herself. They marry and live happily ever after.
Like many of Andersen’s tales, this story is complicated and filled with sad and weird details. Modern retellings sometimes tidy the whole thing up a bit, so read several versions and choose the one most appropriate for your class.
- Storynory’s version
- Readmio’s version
- Sylvia Long has a beautiful picture book for this story. In this book, you can see Thumbelina growing up as the story progresses. This makes the topic of marriage, which comes up a lot in the story, a little more sensible.
- Mary Engelbreit included this story in her Nursery and Fairy Tales Collection. She skips the marriage to the fairy prince at the end, allowing Thumbelina simply to live happily with the fairies.
- Elsa Beskow created classic illustrations for Andersen’s story.
- Arlene Graston won an award for her interpretation.
This is a complicated story with lots of scenes and lots of characters, most of them animals. Divide students into groups and have each group choose one of the animals in the story. Ask each group to write and illustrate the scene with their animal in it. Encourage students to focus on the interactions the animals had with Thumbelina. Sometimes she helps the animals and sometimes they help her. Sometimes the animals try to help Thumbelina, but don’t consider what she wants.
Depending on the version of the story you choose to share with your class, you may find some of these animals:
Once the story is clear, move on to curriculum connections.
Since this is a fairy tale, consider the moral of the story. Fairy tales often have morals, but in this case it’s a bit hard to see what the moral could be. Thumbelina is polite, sings well, and shows compassion for some of the animals she meets, but she’s mostly a hapless wanderer allowing herself to be pushed into unwanted situations. In some tellings, there are distinctions made between ugliness and beauty or wealth and poverty, and sometimes the focus is on how kindness is more important than size. In the song in the video below, for example, Danny Kaye sings “When your heart is full of love you’re nine feet tall!” The song comes from a movie about Hans Christian Andersen.
Some modern versions of the story focus on the theme of kindness, but students might also see Thumbelina’s perseverance or adaptability as strengths.
On the other hand, Thumbelina also found herself in desperate situations. When she moves in with the field mouse because winter is coming, she is an unpaid servant. The field mouse tries to marry her off to a wealthy mole. She thinks Thumbelina should be grateful for this opportunity and she also threatens Thumbelina, saying she will bite her. Thumbelina goes along with the plan, until she has a chance to escape. Is this a sensible response to a desperate situation, or should Thumbelina have made other choices? Depending on the version of the book you read, your students’ ages, and your community’s standards, this could be a very interesting discussion.
Thumbelina is a human in the story, but she also grows from a seed. This could be a good opportunity to compare plants with animals and to study life cycles. Flowers are also a big part of the story.
This is also a good story to fit into a study of the seasons. The swallow gets so cold that he sort of goes into hibernation, Thumbelina has trouble coping with winter, and the seasons are mentioned at various points in the story.
Thumbelina is, when she grows from the seed, only as tall as her mother’s thumb. What a great opportunity to practice measurement! Measure the thumbs in the classroom to determine how tall Thumbelina probably was. Then have students figure out what the world would look like to Thumbelina. How can they tell?
If possible, have students take pictures showing the world as it would look to someone three inches tall. If that is not an option, encourage students to get as close to Thumbelina’s viewpoint as possible and look around. Either way, ask them to draw a picture showing how the world looks to someone the size of Thumbelina.
The fairies are the same size as Thumbelina, but they can fly. How would this affect their perspective on the world?
Check out a Thumbelina ballet lesson!
Play charades, with students acting out the various animals in the story through movement. Take time for observation as well as imagination before you begin. How do mice move, compared with toads? What does a bird look like when flying, compared with an insect? Practice moving like animals as a group and finish up with the game of acting out the various animals while students guess which animal is being portrayed.