Thursday, April 1, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Hans Christian Andersen

This week marks the 205th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen (April 2, 1805--August 4, 1875).

Before I became addicted to biographies as a child, I read fairy tales. I always found the Brothers Grimm a bit, ahem, grim. But I couldn't get enough of Andersen's sunny stories. I read then over and over.

Andersen's childhood was anything but sunny, however. He was mercilessly teased and mocked as a child for his appearance. He was older and bigger than his classmates. To make matters worse, he was tall, lanky, and rather odd looking, with a long thin beak of a nose. All his life he considered himself ugly. Later on, when he had become a writer celebrated throughout Europe, he was asked whether he might write his autobiography. He already had, he answered. It was called "The Ugly Duckling."

How many generations of children have seen themselves in that little duckling? Andersen had clearly tapped into a universal fear of children, of being an outsider longing to belong. It's that universal appeal that has made "The Ugly Duckling" popular around the world for so many years, and in both print and cartoon format.

This is the charge given to us as writers: to look to our own experiences and share the fears and joys we find there. Those things will never change for children. After all, blackboards may evolve into whiteboards and in turn into smart boards. But the feelings of a child stepping into a classroom on the first day of school will never change.

"It does not matter in the least having been born in a duckyard, if only you come out of a swan's egg!"

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