HCA NEWS Children and young people are familiar with Andersen

Danish children and young people are very familiar with Hans Christian Andersen, a new study shows.

By ms - H.C. Andersen 2005 - 17 December 2003

Hans Christian Andersen almost could not have wished for a better present for his 200th birthday in 2005. A study of around 700 Danish students in the 7th and 8th forms shows that Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are still much beloved by today's school children. All the children know of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales - and as a 14-year old girl underscores: "He was good and definitely not forgotten."

The study of children's familiarity with Hans Christian Andersen, the man and his writings, was undertaken by research assistant Anette Øster Steffensen of the Center for Children's Literature at the Danish University of Education. It shows that, on average, children know nine of Hans Christian Andersen's tales and they certainly know who Denmark's greatest fairytale writer of all time was. In fact, only the fewest could not name at least three or four of his fairytales.

The responses reflect to some degree that 13 to14-year old Danish students overemphasize Hans Christian Andersen's "problems with ladies" - and that "The Ugly Duckling" was primarily about the writer's own life. In general, however, many children are quite familiar with Hans Christian Andersen's life.

The Ugly Ducking and The Tinderbox
When children are asked to list the Hans Christian Andersen fairytales they know, they mention - on average - nine fairytales. "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Tinderbox" are named by most children, followed by "The Princess and the Pea," "Clumsy Hans," "The Little Matchstick Girl," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" and "Thumbelina." There is no significant gender or age variation in knowledge of his writings.

What most of these fairytales have in common is that they are not among the most complex or difficult to understand. They are fairytales that can be read on several levels and all are open to a simple, uncomplicated reading. The most complex of the fairytales with which students are familiar are "The Little Mermaid" and "The Snow Queen."

With respect to "The Little Mermaid," for example, it is probable that many students know the fairytale from the Disney cartoon from 1989. "The Snow Queen" may be found in several adaptations and, among other things, was re-introduced in 2000, when the fairytale was told as digital theater, based on ideas and decoupages of Queen Margrethe of Denmark. 

Part of growing up
If one compares the 20 fairytales most recognized by the students with the fairytales most often included in teaching materials published since 1990, there is a certain overlap. Around half of the 20 most popular fairytales are also among those most used in schools.  Nevertheless, "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Little Mermaid," "The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep" and "The Top and the Ball," for example, are only rarely used in teaching materials.

In other words, it is clear that the children know about Hans Christian Andersen's tales from places other than the educational system. They encounter them, among other places, at readings, in paperbacks, in film versions, at the Funen Village and at Tivoli in Copenhagen.

Anette Øster Steffensen of the Center for Children's Literature also asked the children to write what they know about Hans Christian Andersen. The responses from the 13 to 14-year olds describe him as a puerile, slightly odd man with a black top hat. Beyond that, the focus is primarily on his sexuality, appearance and social background. A few have a more nuanced view and understanding of the author's life and works, but the stereotype dominates.

"One can say that the children's picture of Hans Christian Andersen is somewhat stereotypical and without nuance.  One explanation may be that the children are at an age, when they are most absorbed with questions of sexuality and normality. Their interest, therefore, focuses on Hans Christian Andersen's sexuality and the fact that he is well-known. It is deviation that captures the attention of 13 and 14-year olds," says Anette Øster Steffensen.

The study of students' knowledge of Hans Christian Andersen was conducted by Anette Øster Steffensen of the Center for Children's Literature at the Danish University of Education in collaboration with Hans Christian Andersen 2005. It was the purpose of the study to form a picture of the sort of view and understanding 13 and 14-year olds have of the author and how many of the 156 fairytales and stories the students know.

On the study
Eleven schools, scattered across the country, including large and small, urban and rural schools, participated in the study of students' knowledge of Hans Christian Andersen. A total of 707 students from the 7th and 8th forms participated.  Among the participants were 356 girls and 343 boys. Eight did not report their gender - of which one was from the 7th form and seven from the 8th form.

The students were asked to fill in answers with respect to two categories: "Fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen", in which they were supposed to write the titles of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytales they know. They were also asked to respond to the question: "What do I know about Hans Christian Andersen?"

Students in the 7th form wrote down a total of 2,851 titles, which means that, on average, they named 8.4 titles per student. Girls wrote down 1,613 titles - an average of 9.7 - and boys 1,236 - an average of 7.3. 

Students in the 8th form wrote down a total of 3,482 titles, which corresponds to an average of 9.5. Girls wrote down a total of 2,189 titles - an average of 11.6 - and boys a total of 1,247 titles - an average of 7.2.

The list of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytales most often used in teaching materials published since 1990 was based on the collection of schoolbooks at the National Library of Education.