In many ways, "Thumbelina" is a strange tale to adapt for a picture book. Certainly it is not nearly as dark as his more famous "The Little Mermaid" (the original mermaid suffers brutal pain every time she walks on her new legs, is called to murder her beloved prince in order to save herself, turns into seafoam when he marries another, and is finally granted the chance to earn an immortal soul through centuries of good deeds). But while Thumbelina at least enjoys a far happier ending, rewarded for her goodness and stoic endurance with marriage to a handsome fairy king, it's not exactly preschool material, what with the initial kidnapping by an ugly toad and the three narrow escapes from potentially miserable forced marriages.
Still, the idea of a kind and lovely fairy, smaller than a human thumb and contently drifting on a tulip-petal boat when not resting in her walnut-shell bed, is inherently---and perennially---enchanting to many children as well as to adults. And Pinkney's retelling---which mostly abbreviates the story, simplifies details, cuts Thumbelina's sad ruminations when she's dismissed as "ugly," and updates Andersen's prose---is vivid and capable.
The real attraction of this retelling, though, are the illustrations. Brian Pinkney---the son of the legendary watercolorist Jerry Pinkney and Gloria Pinkney as well as the husband of Andrea Davis Pinkney, his frequent collaborator---is a master of his craft. With almost fifty titles to his credit, along with two Caldecott and four Coretta Scott King honors, Pinkney is a major player in the children's book world and, more specifically, one of the key figures in the world of African American children's illustration.
Pinkney's signature style is a scratchboard technique; in this particular book, he uses colored inks on clayboard. The result, in the case of Thumbelina, are dynamic, high-energy (lots of line and swirl!), delicate but playful illustrations that---at times bordering on the abstract---give a very contemporary feel to Andersen's 19th-century tale. Moreover, though his style and medium are very different from those of his father Jerry, both Pinkney men are notable for taking the most European of fairy tales and re-imagining them with brown-skinned protagonists (often, as here, not specifically African American but resonant with a fairly broad group of readers who seldom see themselves represented in such tales). So while the tale itself is not one of my favorites, Pinkney's artwork is worth the price of admission.
Miss E's Read: She loves to sit and examine the images without necessarily putting a story to them. Her favorite pages are the spread where the butterfly pulls Thumbelina on a leaf (who doesn't love butterflies?); the pages where she comforts the (seemingly) dead sparrow; and (shocker!) the concluding pages where Thumbelina is given beautiful clothes and wings (which she finds far more interesting than the fairy-king bridegroom.)