No collection of fairy tales would be complete without the works of the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. In fact, Andersen's life was like a fairy tale in many ways. Out of the poverty, hardship, and loneliness of his youth, he came to be one of the most honored men of his time. Many of the more than 160 fairy tales he wrote, including "The Ugly Duckling," "The Princess and the Pea," and "The Little Mermaid," have become literary classics enjoyed by children and adults alike.
Andersen was born on April 2, 1805, in Odense, Denmark. His parents were poor; his father worked as a shoemaker and his mother was a washerwoman. His father, who died when Andersen was 11, entertained him with old Danish legends and stories from The Arabian Nights.
The people of Odense never knew what to make of the tall, awkward boy. When he recited long passages from plays or did a clumsy dance or insisted on singing, they could hardly help laughing. Everyone advised him to learn a trade, but this he would not do. He was forever saying that he was going to be famous.
In 1819, Andersen moved to the capital city of Copenhagen, where he hoped to become an actor in the Royal Theater. Many people of the theater and wealthy families of the city tried to help him, without much success. His dancing master gave up, and so did his singing teacher. Directors of the Royal Theater sympathized with his efforts to write plays but finally concluded that Andersen needed an education. One of the directors raised money to send him away to school. The next few years were the unhappiest of his life. Andersen was much older than the other students, and the schoolmaster found endless ways to make fun of him. Finally when word of Andersen's plight reached his benefactors in Copenhagen, he was removed from the school and put into the hands of a private tutor. He later attended and graduated from Copenhagen University.
After his schooling, Andersen spent many years traveling and writing poems, books, and plays, which met with some success. It was not until he was 30 that he wrote any fairy tales. His first small book of fairy tales became popular almost immediately, and from then on his fame grew rapidly, spreading from country to country.
Andersen put many pieces of his own life into his fairy tales. He never forgot that his mother as a young girl had been forced to go begging. This led him to write "The Little Match Girl," a story full of compassion for the unfortunate ones of this Earth. And his own personal experiences are reflected in "The Ugly Duckling," which points out that sometimes the qualities that make you feel lonely, different, and out of place are the very qualities that, when properly used, can make you shine.
In 1867 he returned to Odense to be honored by his country. Standing on the balcony of the hall where the ceremony was held, he saw below him the city square, full of people who cheered him, and bright with thousands of candles burning in the windows of all the buildings. Andersen published his last fairy tales in 1872, and after a long illness, he died in Copenhagen on August 4, 1875.
Biography written by Danny Kaye for The New Book of Knowledge®. 2008. For more online resources, visit Grolier Online .