It was late on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve. The snow was falling. A poor little girl was wandering in the dark cold streets; she was bareheaded and barefoot (p. 4)
And so begins the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Little Match Girl. Each time I read this, my heart is just filled with so much mixed emotions, it makes me sit still and be quiet for a few moments. A huge part of what made this story so effective for me is Rachel Isadora’s full-color illustrations which allow me to literally touch the little girl’s sadness and richly-textured sense of longing through the pages.
Today is Christmas Day here in California (we are a day late
compared to the Southeast Asian part of the world) and I am just taken over by the thought that while the rest of the world has soooo much food on the table, reveling in brightly-wrapped presents, feasting on a variety of dishes – there are kids like this Little Match Girl wandering about, barefoot, with a father who beats her and a mother who is too exhausted to even care.
She carried a quantity of matches in her old apron, and held a packet of them in her hand. Nobody had bought any from her during all the long day, and nobody had even given her a copper. The poor little creature was hungry and perishing with cold, and she looked the picture of misery.
What I love most about this story is that it introduces death in bright flickering images from burning matchsticks. Yes, the little girl’s condition is tragic, dismal, heartbreaking – yet, Isadora’s portraits show us the radiance in the match girl’s face as she imagines and visualizes an alternate form of reality through those seemingly-magical matchsticks. While the medical/technical term would be a girl who is suffering from delirium brought about by starvation and the cold, I prefer the more poetic and surreal description. She initially imagines “a big stove with polished brass feet and handles” until .. the match runs out.
Then she imagines a roast goose stuffed with apples and prunes with a carving knife sticking out in its back.
Finally she imagines a huge Christmas tree with thousands of lighted candles gleaming under its branches. I do wish for a day when I would see and smell an authentic tree (with all its lovely pine scent) with actual candles all around it. My heart would perhaps be as overflowing with joy as this little match girl’s.
These ghostly visions and the beauty painted in the child’s face distract the reader from the glaring truth of this little girl’s reality – she is dying.
In the cold morning light the poor little girl sat there, in the corner between the houses, with rosy cheeks and a smile on her face – dead. Frozen to death on the last night of the old year. New Year’s Day broke on the little body still sitting with the ends of the burnt-out matches in her hand.
The sadness of the ending is sweetened by the vision of the beloved grandmother holding our match girl in her hands.
She lifted the little girl up in her arms, and they soared in a halo of light and joy, far, far above the earth, where there was no more cold, no hunger, and no pain – for they were with God.
The book is lovely in making children realize alternate forms of reality – it manages to pierce their protective enclosed glossy safe bubble yet still firmly anchors it in something solid that could provide some sort of meaning despite the tragic (but inevitable) ending. The narrative does not make you feel guilty that you are privileged – yet it forces you to reevaluate your priorities and think about the things that you value the most during this time of the year. It quiets your soul like a sad prayer at the same time that it makes your heart restless in grief. So yes, that is powerful literature right there. Timeless Christmas Classic. Perfect for my 25th Posting.
Rachel Isadora, the illustrator for this timeless Hans Christian Andersen classic used to be a ballerina before she launched her second career as a picture book artist for children. One of her books, Ben’s Trumpet, is a recipient of the Caldecott Honor book.
Interestingly, the book also has several videos to its name. This first one is a classic 1954 black and white retelling of The Little Match Girl – vintage in its form.
This video clip, on the other hand, is a more modern version of The Little Match Girl created by Disney and Pixar. You can decide which video clip your child would enjoy the most.
Enjoy the Holiday Season one and all and Merry Christmas to all our Catholic/Christian readers.Sources: Photo of Rachel Isadora from http://lookingglassreview.com/html/rachel_isadora.html Book is my own personal copy and book photos were taken by me.