Monday, March 31, 2014

The Real Ugly Duckling

One day years ago, when I was homeschooling my children, I read the story of the Ugly Duckling aloud, and the kids used water colors to make illustrations.

Little Wesley proudly showed us his picture. "This is the pond. And these are some ducks." Then he pointed to a dark blob. "And this is an oil slick." Yes, homeschooling gave me quite an education.

Anyway, I love the story of The Ugly Duckling--and also the story of the man behind the story.

Once upon a time, in the far away land of Denmark, there lived a man.

He was poor. He was tall and gangly. He had a sad childhood. He wasn’t a great student. He was unlucky in love. His teachers advised him NOT to pursue a career in writing.

But this “ugly duckling” — Hans Christian Andersen — became one of the most famous writers of all time. In addition to novels, plays, and poetry, he wrote many of the fairy tales we all know and love. Stories like...

  • "The Little Match Girl"
  • "Thumbelina"
  • "The Ugly Duckling"
  • "The Princess and the Pea"
  • "The Little Mermaid"
  • "The Emperor’s New Clothes"
  • "The Snow Queen"

Which only goes to demonstrate that we should ignore the nay-sayers in our lives and follow our hearts.

Hans was born in the town of Odense, in 1805. His father was a cobbler, and his mother was a washerwoman. He was a child who loved stories, and his father told him Danish folk tales and stories from The Arabian Nights

Childhood home in Odense

After his father died, Hans was sent (more like banished) to a school for poor children, where he was forced to make his own living. He worked first as a weaver’s apprentice and then as a tailor. He always looked back on those school years as the darkest, most dreadful time of his life. Small wonder. One schoolmaster often mistreated him just “to improve his character.”

The Little Mermaid's Sisters
After a couple of failed careers, Hans took up writing, against the advice of his teachers. At first, he retold stories he had heard as a child. Then he branched out to writing new and original stories. Many writers today also get their start by writing “fan fiction” based on popular stories in books, movies, or tv shows.

At first the stories Hans wrote were not well received (more nay-sayers), but he was persistent, and he kept writing them anyway.

Then in 1845, things changed. In that one year, four different translations of his tales were published. One reviewer of his book Wonderful Stories wrote, “This is a book full of life and fancy; a book for grandfathers no less than grandchildren, not a word of which will be skipped by those who have it once in hand." This reviewer understood that fairy tales aren’t written just for children but for people of all ages and all times.

The Little Match Girl

Some of Andersen’s stories came from sad experiences in his life. He wrote “The Little Match Girl,” remembering that his mother had been forced to beg as a child. He wrote “The Nightengale” about his love for the famous opera singer, Jenny Lind. Alas, Jenny did not return his love, but because of the story, she was given the nickname “The Swedish Nightengale.”

Hans Christian Andersen had much in common with the Ugly Duckling of his famous story. But that story has a happy ending, and so did the life of this writer who finally found recognition for his work. 

On April 2nd, we commemorate Andersen’s birthday, now known as International Children’s Book Day. Why not celebrate by reading one of his stories out loud to your family or friends?

Hans lived for seventy years, but the characters he created and the stories he wrote—they will live on, happily ever after.