Once upon a time, a mother asked Albert Einstein what she should read to her son to help him grow up as brilliant and intelligent as the famous scientist.

“Fairy-tales,” he said, nodding his head.

“Then what?” the mother asked.

“More fairy-tales,” Einstein replied.

A good place to start for instilling values of resilience, imagination  and truth in children is Hans Christian Andersen. “The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories (168 Tales in the chronological order of publication) by HCA and translated by H.B. Paull (2013) Centaur, available as an e-book, is widely regarded as faithful to the original version (only $1!) and will delight children. It takes us far away from the watered down, superficial, Disneyfied versions that overwhelm the marketplace. There are multiple other HCA selections that are good to use with children but be wary of some retellings that radically alter the original tales.

Parents will have to decide which tales are appropriate based on their child’s age and maturity. The H.B. Paull version is largely uncensored and faithful to the original. It lacks the pictures of many new interactive versions but has pictures enough in its language. Nine years is an ideal starting age. However parents can read aloud to a younger age group provided they adapt or leave out any overly frightening parts as they see fit.  

However, one version published back in 2011 is perhaps best avoided: The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales textual annotations by Marte Hvam Hult, (G books) with an introduction and commentary by Jack Zipes. The author admits to “taking a few liberties with Andersen’s text” and these include changing the nightingale bird in HCA’s original tale of The Nightingale (1844) from ‘her’ and ‘she’ to what is considered more appropriate, the gender neutral ‘it’ and ‘he’. The author claims this is because it is the male nightingale who in fact sings. He seems to ignore the important fact that Andersen’s original writing portrayed the nightingale as female. The Emperor is the only character who refers to the nightingale as ‘it’, but never as a male bird. All other characters in the original version refer to the bird as ‘she’ and ‘her.’

Read this volume to your children and yes, it may seem more readily comprehensible – parts of the story that were specific to the Danish culture and language of the time have been altered with slight but noticeably radical differences inserted and shaped according to the modern author’s desires. However, you will be missing out on the richness of the full story.

For further suggestions of authentic and true-to-the-original translations go to The Hans Christian Andersen Centre.

A former children’s librarian, Jane Fagan is currently a full-time mother of two.