________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 9 . . . . January 6, 2006


Hans Christian Andersen: His Fairy Tale Life.

Hjørdis Varmer. Illustrated by Lilian Brøgger. Translated by Tiina Nunnally.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2005.
112 pp., cloth, $19.95.
ISBN 0-88899-690-X.

Subject Headings:
Andersen, H.C. (Hans Christian), 1805-1875-Juvenile literature.
Authors, Danish-19th century-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.

Review by Lori Walker.

**** /4


Edvard Collin's wife was one of the people who lovingly tended him when he was grieving for Henriette. She listened to his cries and laments. She comforted him and encouraged him. But every once in a while even she would exclaim, “Oh, now he's going too far!”

Her little daughter shared this feeling. Whenever she came home and saw Hans Christian's big galoshes in the foyer, she would say, “Is that awful Mr. Andersen here again?” Then her mother would scold her and say, “Just remember that it was Mr. Andersen who wrote ‘The Nightingale.'” Little Louise loved that story, but she did not love Mr. Andersen.

Yet most children did. They didn't see him as Louise did, pacing the parlor and waving his big handkerchief as he wept and whined. Nor did they see how he was calmed and soothed, and then shortly afterwards sat down to eat a whole platter of sandwiches. Most children thought of him as a kindly old uncle. And he was like an uncle in the home of Edvard Collin. But the entire family continued to treat him as they always had, before he was famous. And Hans Christian found that difficult to understand.


The 2005 bicentennial celebration of Hans Christian Andersen's birth may be coming to a close, but Hjørdis Varmer, illustrator Lilian Brøgger, and translator Tiina Nunnally have left us with a beautifully illustrated biography to remember it by. Hans Christian Andersen: His Fairy Tale Life is a fully engaging tale of the author's tragedies, triumphs and eccentricities. And the author's simple, oral storyteller's style of writing not only makes the book fully accessible to younger readers, but also captures the essence of Hans Christian's style and time honored popularity.

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     Hans Christian was born into a poor family with great hopes that their only child would find success in life. His mother was illiterate and deeply superstitious; his father was a cobbler who could not afford to send his son to school but did introduce Hans Christian to the world of theater through the readings of Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg. The two also built wooden puppets and told stories to patients at a mental hospital where Hans Christian's grandmother worked. When funds were finally available, Hans Christian was sent to school where he was teased about his odd looks, mentally ill grandfather and his wildly creative storytelling.

     But storytelling was what Hans Christian was driven to pursue, despite many missteps and wrong turns. When he was 11-years-old, he found a receptive audience in a widow who lived close by. But not everyone was appreciative of his works. “If someone praised his writing, he would be giddy with joy, but if his work was received unkindly, he would weep with despair.” When the time came for him to set out on his own, he went to Copenhagen and the Royal Theater where, despite his lack of formal training, he believed his future lay in acting and dancing. He managed to secure the support of several mentors who valiantly tried to supplement his limited education, but the independent minded writer often found himself penniless and without a plan. When at last he found success in publishing his stories, his happiness was regularly tested by failed love affairs, limited funds, and his own “sensitive nature and delicate nerves.”

     This funny and well researched book will bring Hans Christian Andersen's life and stories to the attention of new readers while completely charming Hans Christian's many existing fans. And enriching the book even more fully are the hand drawn and collage style illustrations, whimsical and deeply funny in their own right. Lilian Brøgger was awarded the Danish HC Andersen Award for her illustrations in this book, an award that has never before been given to a children's book illustrator. She has also been nominated for the IBBY 2004 Andersen Illustrator's medal.

     This wonderful rendering of Hans Christian's story-tale, ugly duckling life will inspire many creative souls; writers, dancers, artists, readers and dreamers.


Highly Recommended.

Lori Walker is completing a Masters in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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