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June 1, 2016

International Children’s Book Day

I grew up with an edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories that was, to say the least, not sanitized. Characters froze to death (“The Little Match Girl”), were tormented by giant spiders (“The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf”), and were teased by an evil queen and her demonic henchmen (“The Snow Queen”). The individual illustrations by Arthur Szyk in the collection were creepy and I found the endpapers (a collage of scenes and characters) terrifying. If you were to look on my shelves today, you’d never guess that the obviously well-loved book with the faded green spine holds a collection I found nightmarish. But I wasn’t able to stop reading it. I read and reread Andersen’s tales throughout my childhood and teen years and those stories (and their brilliant translations by Mrs. E. V. Lucas and Mrs. H. B. Paull) undoubtedly helped shape me as a reader.

A hundred and thirty-seven years after his death, Hans Christian Andersen is the kind of author who isn’t always given credit when his tales are retold and who might not be immediately recognized, yet he influences art, literature, and pop culture today. There are statues, a theater, and even theme parks in his honor worldwide. The phrase “ugly duckling” is such a part of our vernacular that few ever stop to think that it has its origins in a children’s tale.

But as a tribute to his legacy, Andersen’s birthday has been chosen to mark an international celebration of children’s literature.

Since 1967, readers worldwide have paused to mark International Children’s Book Day on April 2. Sponsored by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), the day is “celebrated to inspire a love of reading and to call attention to children’s books.” When I realized it was International Children’s Book Day, I found myself wondering where children’s literature would be were it not for Andersen’s skill as a storyteller. His stories are so woven into my reading and work life, I found it impossible to comprehend the genre without him. No “Princess and the Pea”? No “Little Mermaid”? No “Thumbelina”? Unimaginable. Tonight, I’ll be sitting down to read “The Snow Queen” for the umpteenth time—and I’d like to suggest you take some time today, read one of his stories, and share it with a child.


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April 2, 2012