The marvellous thing about storytelling is that it can take something ordinary out of the real world and make it extraordinary.
Sometimes the thing it takes can itself be extraordinary, in the way it can cause pain or stigma to those that experience it. Childlessness or being perceived as somehow different or ‘less’ than others, bore weight to our forefathers and mothers. The stories of Tom Thumb or his cousins, Thumbelina and the lesser known Thumbnickel, would have had greater resonance to those that lived when folk tale collectors and writers were at work, than many of us today.
Tom Thumb describes the adventures of a tiny boy, delivered to a childless couple, by magic or chance, that through series of adventures and misadventures, finds fame in the court of the King and Queen of England. The strangers he meets in the story either treat him with suspicion or an eye on how to exploit him. The narrative voice of the storyteller, especially in older text versions of the story, tells us that the boy was healthy, strong and clever, but remained small despite all his parents’ best efforts to make him otherwise. In the Germanic versions below, you’ll hear that although he escaped some truly horrendous experiences (and if you follow my story links below, you’ll find out exactly what I mean by that – he really does end up in the… well, it’s not pretty) through his own wit and daring, it is made clear that the only peace he’ll ever have will be at home with his stoic, and dull, parents.
Thumbelina goes through her own trials and tribulations, and learns at the end of it all that by being a good girl and staying positive, pretty and submissive to ugly toads, bossy mice and boring moles, you eventually get your soppy Prince Charming. Well, that’s my spin on it. I must admit, there’s half of me that would like her to fly away from it all on that helpful Swallow she meets near the end of her tale and go to somewhere that she likes, put her feet up and meet a succession of handsome young men called Chris or Steve, before she settles down with a dependable Tom (not Tom Thumb though, he sounds awful). The story is an allegorical tale about a young girl’s vulnerability in the big, wild world and however much her mother wanted her and cherished her as a child, this doesn’t last long. When she blossoms into early womanhood, those that wish to manipulate and exploit her, in far more dark and sinister ways than the ‘marriage’ or simple ‘cooking and cleaning’ suggested in the text are there ready to take her away. Like many of the original tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen’s tale is layered with warnings of lost innocence, servitude and darkness, that adult eyes may take as a stark warning to protect their children from harm. Thumbelina’s mother is a single parent, or, at least, there is not mention of a father figure anywhere in the texts I’ve read. I find that fascinating.
Children identify with the characters of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina strongly. Of course they do, I know did. The world seems so huge and as a child, you feel so small. There are lots of perils out there to deal with, and the arrogance of youth can lead the unwary into trouble, like Tom, or the innocent into situations that they are not equipped to deal with yet, like Thumbelina. Eventually Tom and Thumbelina come out the other side of their misadventures, heads bloody, but unbowed. Thumbelina is saved, not by her ingenuity, but through kindness. Tom is saved by his parents, ultimately. Every effort he made to solve a problem only landed him further in trouble, which even he admits when he finds alone in ploughed field, lost and alone, in fear of clods of furrowed earth burying him alive. That Thumbelina meets a prince who hands over his crown to her and Tom Thumb is greeted with either fame or love (and clean clothes) by his parents, is the ultimate in reassurance that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT, even if it looks terrible right now.
Good audio and IWB versions of the English Tom Thumb most of us know and Thumbelina are available for home and classroom use from Audible and the good people at Twinkl, but use a bookshop or library and you’ll make an actual person happy in real life.
Here a some starting points for activities for children. Feel free to borrow, adapt, or ignore as you please! If you do choose to do any of them, I would love to know how you get on, so please do let me know. Make a comment in the box below.
- Design and make tiny homes and furniture for Tom Thumb or Thumbelina – use natural and/or recycled materials if you can. Tiny sticks from the garden, nut shells, scraps of old fabric. How cool this would be if you could do this outside and build and maintain this over time? Find logs and branches to create a home environment on a small scale. Find a “Tom” or “Thumbelina” sized doll to add the scene, take photos and you’ve got a photostory to write
- Design and make tiny clothes – let your imagination run riot! Feathers, sequins, the lot! Let you and your children’s inner Gok Wan go wild and create a runway of outfits and model them on thumbs. Just be careful with the glue, or you’ll be stuck like that forever
- Design and made conveyance of your choice for your hero – do they travel by bird or carriage? Experiment with wheels, carriages, bird seats (not on actual birds, obvs)
- Write a Missing Poster for Tom or Thumbelina
- Create a news report about one of the scenes from the stories – Watch the Grimms’ Tom Thumb, it is FULL of incidents to report on there. This report could be written down, or better yet, acted out. Get everyone involved and work as a group. If home schooling, ask different family members to act out the various parts (I’d skip the chopping up parts bits though. I’m not responsible for any “accidents”)
- Draw a comic book or storyboard of the events in the stories
- Draw illustrations for the stories, by using your observation skills – look closely at flowers and the ground as if you were really small.
- Research illustrations from Tom Thumb and Thumbelina in Victorian or old copies of books – look them up online (remember online safety – make sure that children do this under supervision, as there some very strange things hiding under folk lore and fairy stories). Can you see how they are different from picture books nowadays?
- Stage a thumb war! Keep it safe out there, kids!
- Research the “real” Colonel Tom Thumb that worked for P.T. Barnum, yes, that one from The Greatest Showman. Colonel Tom Thumb entertained Queen Victoria and was world famous. Find out what he looked like; where and when he was born, lived and died; and where he travelled to. Ask yourself, do you think he liked being in a circus? Do you know why he may have joined a circus?
- Research the history of story of Tom Thumb (it is an English Folk Story, first recorded in England in the 17th Century), the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. What can you find out?
- Compare the English version of Tom Thumb with the two other versions of it you can hear here. What are the biggest things you notice that make them the same? How are they different? If you could write your own version, what you like to happen?
- Compare the tale of Tom Thumb with that of Thumbelina. Who is the bravest character? Which one would you rather be? Would you make the same choices as them? Why do you feel that way?
- Imagine what would happen if Tom Thumb met Thumbelina. What would they say to each other? What would they do? How would they meet each other? Think about when and where they lived in their stories, so make sure that you get the setting right before you start.
Again, please let me know how you get on if you try any of these activities. If you have queries, or would like to discuss any aspect of what I do, don’t hesitate to get in touch.