Monday, October 29, 2012

{Guest Post} My Favourite Children's Author: Hans Christian Andersen

Some of my favourite fairy tales are penned by the legendary Hans Christian Andersen. From The Ugly Duckling to the Little Mermaid, these are tales that I grew up with and will never forget.

So I am very delighted that PC is sharing all about this wonderful author with us today. She is a mother of two girls, aged 7 and 2 respectively. She takes a part-time working scheme this year to learn better juggling between family and work (as well as her self). She blogs at Simply Us, a place where keeping her sane amidst the all the whining and messes.


Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish author and poet who wrote many poems, plays, stories and travelogues, but is best known for his fairy tales. He once said that ideas for his stories 'lie in my mind like seeds and only need the kiss of a sunbeam or a drop of malice to flower'. Andersen's fairy tales of fantasy that are filled with moral values are popular with children and adults all over the world. 

Andersen was born on April 2, 1805, in Odense, Denmark. His father was a shoemaker, and his mother earned money washing other people's clothes. His parents spoiled him and encouraged him to develop his imagination. Many say his life is a fairy tale itself, as he came from a poor background and yet became a remarkable storyteller for many decades. 

This was my first book of fairy tales.

I could not remember when exactly I got it, probably it was during my upper primary schooling years. The book consists of twelve long stories with only one picture to illustrate each story. Some even had no pictures. But those powerful words were enough to blow my mind as a child. Not all of the stories ended happily ever-after, but I was immersed in the rich, imaginary world of the author to learn about good life values through princes and princesses, the poor and the wealthy classes, sparrows, swallows, ducklings, swans, peas, shoemakers and what not. I read the book so many times that I wonder if the tales were true? Most of the tales begin by saying it was a tale told long ago and retold before it is forgotten, or it was a tale told by a swallow or sparrow, which made the tales so believable, that I hoped I could listen and understand the birds tweeting. And, some stories sounded so real to me that I wished I could visit the museum that displayed the pea!

Yes, I am talking about stories written by Hans Christian Andersen.  It was very much later I realised that Hans C. Andersen is one of the world's most beloved children's author in the world. Almost everyone would have heard of his famous tales such as The Ugly Duckling, Princess and the Pea, The Little Mermaid, The Emperor's New Suit, and many more. Many of his stories are sophisticated and beautifully written, with tales that provoked my emotionss. I took a long time to accept that Little Mermaid didn't get to become a princess and instead transformed into the cold foam of sea. 

He wrote more than one hundred and fifty fairy tales. He set new ground in both style and content, and employed idioms and forms of spoken language in a way that was new in Danish writing, leading many critics to commend his informal, chatty style. While fairy tales in his time were didactic and meant to convey information, he brought wit, irony and often ambiguity to his tales. Many of these tales teach us moral values that would help in everyday life or warn against something.

To me, he is the greatest storyteller, with an ability to weave the imaginary with reality. Different individuals would perceive different messages from each and every story of Andersen. For example, The Little Match Girl spoke out for exploited children sent by their parents to beg in the streets. I was shock to learn that, and at the same time, it taught me a lesson that how blessed I was with what I had as a little girl (I thought I was poor, but neh). Whilst, in The Fir Tree, he told a very meaningful story of the life of a Fir Tree rejoice in its growth and presence. 

"He now felt glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enabled him to enjoy so much better all the pleasure and happiness around him; for the great swans swam round the new-comer, and stroked his neck with their beaks, as a welcome."(from 'The Ugly Duckling') 

Over the years, Andersen's tales have “evolved”. Reading his tales again after growing up with abridged and altered versions of his creations can be quite amusing, especially with a pre-schooler. Many of the stories are simpler and yet still contain amazing appeal to inspire a new generation. When my elder daughter was three (or four), I started to read Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling to her. We even went to watch The Ugly Duckling.

However, my girl first learned about the Little Mermaid through Walt Disney, so much so she refused to accept the ending of the original version. I can't blame her, it is a happy ending compared to Andersen's original. Well, she will learn the real beauty and power of Andersen's literary wonders someday.

She has since continued with other stories like The Emperor's New Suit. I love this as Andersen used the character of a child to speak the truth and question the moral of deluding oneself. Not every criticism or opinion is worth to be uttered:

"But he has nothing on at all," said a little child at last. "Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child," said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. "But he has nothing on at all," cried at last the whole people. That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, "Now I must bear up to the end." And the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried train which did not exist." (from 'The Emperor's New Suit,').

Recently my girl got to read The Nightingale in a simpler version via Usborne (part of the school reading program). It was a version without Death and very much easier for her to read on her own. I took the opportunity to get The Nightingale from library and go through the story with her. This version contained many more difficult words and more complicated scenes (compare to Usborne's).

"The king seemed on the verge of death until the nightingale who had been banished from the court upon hearing of his illness came to offer comfort and indeed she managed to chase death away. By doing so, she gained her freedom and a promise from the king that he would listen his little bird and be a just and compassionate ruler. In turn, the nightingale would come back and sing for him to fill his heart with joy." (extracted from here)

While I read, explained along the way, Death is introduced to her for the first time. So she asked, "Who is he?" The book happened to have the illustration of the Death staring at the ill emperor with his cold, hollow eyes and many faces surrounded the room, making the scene fearfully still.

Her other questions included: "Can Death take away the emperor's spirit by judging his good and bad deeds?", "Why do you want to take away the emperor's spirit?" and "Why are there so many faces?"

I pondered, knowing what a scaredy-cat she is. "He is someone very powerful who does his work like an emperor to decide whether you can live or die," I replied.


I tried to answer it tactfully. In many story books, Death is more of a loss, intangible, rather than being portrayed as a character  that comes judges you at the last moment of your life. I told her that, it is the uniqueness of the story and is meant to remind us that there is nothing to be afraid of, even if it seems fearful in the story. Death is part of life, and in the case of The Nightingale, the emperor was ill and his body may just "stop working", hence the spirit has to leave the body and resulting in the death of the emperor.

I wasn't sure, but I reckon it was good to keep her contemplating and come back to me with other forms of question relating to death.

We'll see.

The story leads to a happy ending after all. The Nightingale showed her appreciation, revisited the ill emperor and chased the evil faces away. By doing that, she earned her freedom and a promise from the emperor.

L-R: The Ugly Duckling, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Princess and the Pea, The Nightingale, The Little Match Girl, The Emperor's New Clothes
There are far too many Andersen's tales to share here. The books illustrated above are just some I can find from the fairy tale corner of a local library. Perhaps you could find a suitable story for your child(ren) in the list here before you head to the library to borrow the book.

Andersen's tales has been published in numerous collections during his life and many are still in print today. Through this exercise of re-reading the tales and researching more about Andersen, I enjoyed my self once again in his fabulous stories in English vis-a-vis the Chinese version of mine. My first book of fairy tales was somewhat unabridged from the English version, not bad, in my opinion. 

[Some other tales in my book include The Red Shoes, The Pea Blossom, The Buckwheat, The Flying Trunk that I opine they are more suitable to older children in upper primary school level.]

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