Hans Christian Andersen Lives Next Door is a funny and thought-provoking middle-grade novel about the power of stories – especially the ones we tell ourselves.
Real life isn’t a fairy tale for Andie Gladman. The small-town Meaford tween doesn’t have many friends and endures, with exasperation, the school bully’s verbal slings and arrows. When a new neighbour with the mailbox initials of “HCA” moves in next door, Andie catches a glimpse of a tall, thin man with a receding hairline and a “very notable nose,” and she is sure he looks familiar. After pulling a big hardcover from her bookshelf and flipping to the author photo, Andie is enamoured with the possibility of living beside a literary legend. Suspending disbelief, she gushes, “it might be the most important thing that has ever happened to me in my whole life.”
Andie is fired up to riff in rhyme, and starts to put her own modern spin on classics such as The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Princess and the Pea, and The Little Match Girl. As she comes to terms with her emotions and works through her troubles, her quirky poetry evolves from the jokily imitative to something genuinely her own.
Vicky Metcalf Award–winning author Cary Fagan always sprinkles a little magic dust on everything he writes. This tale is brimming with fanciful charm and a pleasing dash of whimsy: Andie’s parents run a thriving cricket business; Myrtle Klinghoffer, Andie’s antagonist, has a booming voice that their teacher says could “scare the children in kindergarten”; and Newton Newsom, Andie’s dramatic, allergy-plagued ally, has a “Life Plan” that revolves around kangaroo wrangling.
Lending an enchanting flourish are ink line drawings by Vancouver artist Chelsea O’Byrne that appear throughout the short chapters.
With a comical persistence, Andie seeks her neighbour’s autograph, attention, and authorial support. When she discovers he works for the Ministry of Agriculture, she figures his books haven’t sold enough copies to keep him from needing another job. The interplay between the child’s steadfastness and HCA’s deadpan, gently ironic responses – “You have quite an active imagination” – delivers some of the novel’s most humourous and affecting scenes.
Andie is no naive nincompoop. Confessing right off the bat that readers will suss out something long before she does, her chatty, immensely likable first-person narration poses a provocative question: “how could I have believed something that isn’t true … I might just leave it to you to come up with an answer.”