The Ugly Duckling
by Hans Christian Andersen
adaptation and art by Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney's The Ugly Duckling
adapted from Hans Christian Andersen

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 5-10

Beauty and belonging

I think it's fair to say that Hans Christian Andersen's original Ugly Duckling wouldn't get published today.

  • Too long.
  • Too wordy.
  • Too open to interpretation.

I mean, here you have an odd bird, born into a family of ducks.

Even as an egg, he's not like the others. Once hatched, he's picked on by the other ducks - for his ugliness, for being different.

Who are you callin' 'ugly'?

His mother stands up for him, but even his siblings join in the bullying.

He leaves the duck pond, but doesn't fit in anywhere else. He experiences moments of kindness - a man rescues him from certain death and brings him home - but they are few and far between.

(Pinkney's adaptation takes a softer approach here than the original. In Andersen's, while the man saves our ugly "duckling," his family is not nearly so kind. In Pinkney's version, the entire family is well-intentioned and our hero is mistaken in feeling unwelcome.)

It's a rather sad story, until his wanderings take him to a stream hosting a flock of swans, just at the time of his own maturation. Lo and behold: he already is a swan.

I hope I didn't ruin that for anyone. ;-)

Jerry Pinkney's version of The Ugly Duckling

When I said that the story's message was too open to interpretation, here's what I meant...

One could very well say that the moral of The Ugly Duckling is that you will only be welcomed by your own kind. Or at least that that is the only place you'll fit in.

And in a multicultural society, that's a message that isn't particularly welcomed.

(As mentioned, Pinkney put a bit of a more modern spin on this by depicting the human family as, essentially, open to adoption of the young swan.)

That's why parents will want to help contextualize the story, perhaps presenting it as assurance that we all pass through some awkward and unpleasant stages before becoming the beautiful beings we're meant to be.

Pinkney is charmed by classic old tales. (See, for instance, our review of his The Lion and the Mouse, by way of Aesop.)

Lending his legendary skills as a watercolorist (one Caldecott Medal and five Caldecott Honors to date, one of them for this effort) to the stories, he brings them alive for new generations.

Don't eat my feet!

Children will delight in the detail and in finding all the other life forms in all the venues the beautiful swan-to-be travels to.

(Also, the author shortened Andersen's text considerably, without losing any of the real substance.)

Jerry Pinkney's The Ugly Duckling is a beautiful take on an old standard.

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