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Hans Christian Andersen Award 2010 – Acceptance Speech

Index ID: HCAAS — Publication date: October 19th, 2010

Hans Christian Andersen is a writer I revere, because his work was of that rare order that seems to transcend authorship. He created indestructible, eternal characters. The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, and The Naked Emperor have become so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that we are in danger of forgetting that we were not born knowing about them, that Andersen gave them to us. His stories have spoken to generations across many nations and have spawned a million interpretations, yet the originals retain the greatest fascination of all.

Andersen understood that writing for children does not mean pureeing what one would have written for adults. It ought not to be bland or soppy or devoid of challenging ingredients. Those who write for children, or at least those who write best for children, are not child-like or immature, but they do remember with sometimes painful intensity both what it was to be small and confused and how wonderful was that fierce joy in the moment that can become so elusive in later life. Any book that is written down to children or with one nervous sideways eye on the author’s fellow adults or in the belief that this is the kind of thing that ‘they like’ cannot work and will not last. Children are not “they”. They are us. And this is why writing that succeeds with children often succeeds just as well with adults — not because the latter are infantile or regressive, but because the true dilemmas of childhood are the dilemmas of the whole of life: those of belonging and betrayal, the power of the group and the courage it takes to be an individual, of love and loss, and learning what it is to be a human being, let alone a good, brave, or honest one.

Hans Christian Andersen’s work is an eloquent rebuttal to those people who would sanitize children’s literature. For all the warmth, humor, and beauty of his stories, he was not afraid to depict cruelty, injustice, or pain. His Little Match Girl dies quietly of poverty and his Mermaid shows that to risk everything and yet to lose has its own romantic splendor, its own grandeur. I do not presume to compare the Harry Potter books with stories that have lasted two hundred years, but I loved my own characters so much that leaving them all behind after seventeen years was a kind of bereavement. The fact that so many people enjoyed the world that I made stuns me every day, and yet miraculously, it still feels like my own private kingdom where I can’t help strolling occasionally just to see what my surviving characters are up to.

I love meeting young men and women who grew up reading the Harry Potter books. Sometimes they are apologetic. “You must hear this all the time.” But I’m never bored by meeting people who lived at Hogwarts with me. This is the miracle of literature to which no other medium can compare — that the writer and the reader’s imaginations must join together to make the story, so that there are as many different Harrys, Hagrids, and Forbidden Forests as there are co-creators, each one personal to the reader.

The books we read in childhood often have a particular power over us. Perhaps this is not only because we are impressionable and sensitive in youth, but because we are so exacting when we are young — happy to reject anything that does not hold our attention. Children don’t buy books because they think they ought to read them or because they want to display them on their coffee tables. Children keep reading purely because they want to know what happens next, and as such, they are the most demanding yet satisfying readership of all.

So, thank you to everyone, young and old who stuck loyally with Harry through seven volumes of adventures, to everybody at Harry’s many publishers who helped bring his story to new readers and with particular thanks to Gyldendal, my Danish publisher, to my family for putting up with me all these years that I kept disappearing on the Hogwarts Express, and of course, to the Hans Christian Andersen Prize committee and the city of Odense for presenting me with an award I shall treasure all my life.

Thank you very much.

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