Andersen was a Danish writer and paper-cut artist who not only recorded tales from the oral storytelling tradition (in the style of the Brothers Grimm), but who also wrote his own creations. His fairy tales were published in Europe beginning in the 1830s, but it wasn’t until the 1860s that Americans first got a look at them (in an American English edition – maybe they’d seen them before elsewhere, people did travel back then, you know).
A man named Horace E. Scudder worked for an early version of the publishing house we now know as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, known then as Hurd & Houghton. At that time in children’s publishing, children’s magazines were becoming a big deal, with many publishers vying for the position of top-circulating, best-illustrated, most-engaging-stories-by-most-famous-authors children’s magazine producer. The Riverside Magazine for Young People was first published by Hurd & Houghton in December 1866. Scudder had a close relationship with Andersen and was able to not only publish 17 of Andersen’s fairy tales in The Riverside Magazine beginning in 1868, but Scudder also negotiated on behalf of Hurd & Houghton to publish the only authorized American edition of Andersen’s stories (thank you to Leonard Marcus’s Minders of Make-Believe for this information). Scudder was constantly encouraging Andersen to make the trip across the pond and visit the States, but sadly that never happened.
Andersen’s tales have been made into movies – cartoon and live-action, plays, and ballets. They also continue to be collected in anthologies and illustrated as individual stories. Just last month in March 2010, Chronicle Books published a version of Thumbelina, illustrated by Sylvia Long (9780811855228, $17.99). One of my favorite versions of this story was illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger, published under the title Thumbeline (9780735822368, $6.95, NorthSouth). There is even a graphic novel version (9781434217417, $4.95, Capstone Press), and a re-imagined full-length middle grade novel with silhouette illustrations by Barbara Ensor (9780375839603, $12.99, Random House).
Of the hundreds of anthologies of Andersen’s work, Lisbeth Zwerger has illustrated a beautiful edition in her signature dreamy watercolor style (9780698400351, $21.99, Penguin). W.W. Norton (a publishing house) has released an annotated collected works (9780393060812, $35), while Calla Editions, an imprint of Dover Publications, has published an immense, bound in a cloth binding with gold embossed lettering, gift edition (9781606600009, $40). Lastly, don’t miss a collection of his paper cuttings – artwork that looks like reverse silhouettes, compiled by Beth Wagner Brust for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (9780618311095, $9.95).
However you prefer your Andersen, illustrated or performed, take some time today or this weekend to read a few of his treasured tales. I’d start with The Little Mermaid (if you’re reading with older children or for yourself). This isn’t a washed-out Disney version. It’s the real classic. As it should be.