Friday, October 19

Thumbelina of Toulaba


"After Hans Christian Andersen"
by Daniel Picouly
illustrated by Olivier Tellac
Enchanted Lion Books 2007
translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrich
published in France as Poucette de Toulaba
by Rue de Monde 2007

"Once upon a time in Toulaba, a country at the far end of far away..."

So begins the trouble with this updating of the classic Andersen tale because the illustration shows us a dark-skinned woman which implies that the setting -- an island in the Caribbean -- is at the far end of far away. Whether geological, cultural or ideological, implying these islands are at the far reaches of where this story is being told implies a colonial mindset. But let's take on the second sentence on the first page and see what happens.

"...she wanted a child, but a child no bigger than the smallest of small children. In other words, tiny. She had already had so many children that her house was full..."

Uh huh. Poor, non-white, house full of kids.

Okay, it's a picture book, and perhaps I am reading far too much into these words. But words, especially the words at the beginning of a story, set the tone and mood of the story. And the tone I'm getting here sits poorly with me.

The remainder of this tedious exercise doesn't even deal with the mother that called Thumbelina into existence so I'm not sure I understand why we need to know she had all these children, that she was dark-skinned, that she lived at the edge of what a Western European mindset would consider "exotic."

The bulk of the story has Thumbelina bouncing around, fending off marriage proposals right and left, and learning the ways of the world from all the plant and animal life she encounters. Even here the exotic is evoked as we discover at the end of the book a two-page glossary of all the native plant and animal species visited in the book. The story then is nothing more than a flimsy frame on which Picouly wants to showcase the wonders of nature.

Why drag Andersen into it, why tell the story this way at all? It's difficult to know how much is lost in the translation, how a different nationality -- the French in this case -- perceives the "other" differently than we do ourselves. But to bring a book from one culture into another asks that the reader know and understand the book as presented, not as it was perceived at home, so these questions of surface are relevant. Does the non-fiction picture book for children exist in France, or do they need to resort to having their nature books couched in old fairy tales in which to make them more palatable?

There is another element that is slightly disturbing and that is the "message" added to the story about the ever-compliant Thumbelina having to learn the power of the word "no" to be used to thwart her suitors. It's made clear early on that she does not know the words "yes" and "no" (though she is capable of much more complicated conversation throughout) until she is taught to say no and then when she uses it her suitors leave her alone. What creeps me out about this is the idea of a story teaching a small girl how to say no to advances by truly gruesome characters who think nothing of demanding she be their bride. I don't recall the female empowerment message in the original tale, and instead of feeling like an updated element as it's presented here it has all the subtlety of teaching small children about turning down the advances of sexual predators. That may not be the intent at all, but its incongruity within the text leaves that sort of bad taste in my mouth.

By all means, check it out for yourself and let me know if you think I'm being too harsh. I doubt it, but I'm open to alternate suggestions about why this experience left me feeling like I needed to take a shower afterward.
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