Basic Plot Summary: On a cold snowy New Year’s Eve, a little girl wanders through the city trying to sell matches. She has almost no protection against the cold, but she’s afraid to go home to her abusive father so she stays in the snow. She lights matches to warm herself up and sees visions of a warm stove, a huge feast and a festive holiday scene. A shooting star reminds her of her late grandmother, who told her that shooting stars were signs of someone dying. She lights all her remaining matches and sees her grandmother, who takes the girl in her arms and carries her to heaven. In the morning, people find the frozen girl still smiling from the beautiful sights she saw.
Although it is widely criticized as one of the saddest fairy tales ever written, Hans Christian Andersen actually meant it to be hopeful and uplifting, corresponding with his beliefs as a Christian. He was also part of an artistic movement that condemned class differentiation, giving his story an additional purpose of humanizing the social issues that Denmark and other European countries struggled with during the Victorian Era. There have been many adaptations of the story, including (most surprisingly) a theme park attraction in the Netherlands, which presents a three-dimensional retelling of the story and a variety of films and stories. A 1987 television musical version featuring Twiggy and Roger Daltrey is apparently as terrible as it sounds.
The Little Match Girl – This version closely follows the original and even credits Hans Christian Andersen as the author, without even a ‘retold by’ credit. I am familiar with Rachel Isadora mostly through the fairy tales that she has retold in an African setting, reflecting the ten years that she lived in Africa. But this one features traditional artwork, in the story’s Victorian setting, which has the look and feel of Charles Dickens’ London. Ms. Isadora uses the light of the matches and the lights coming from windows and street beautifully here and the final picture, which shows us the girl illuminated only by natural daylight, is a perfect way to close the story. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987)
The Little Matchstick Girl – Author/illustrator Debbie Lavreys has published her own version of several fairy tale stories and she dedicates this one to her grandparents. The little girl in this story is drawn as pretty and clean, with a patchwork coat and bare feet. The colors and artistic style here have a folk art feel to them, which gives the heavy story a little bit of lightness. The ending emphasizes how happy the girl is to be in heaven with her grandmother and includes an illustration of her smiling when she’s found lying in the snow. Based on your beliefs, this could be a good book to introduce kids to the concept of death as a positive outcome when someone is suffering. (Clavis Publishing, 2008)
The Little Match Girl – The story is set in America here, in the early 20th century. Author/illustrator Jerry Pinkney adds a note to readers explaining that he remembers the faces of children from photographs of that era and that they have stayed with him for many years. I think those memories serve to add an even stronger layer of pathos into his version, which brought me to the edge of tears. The girl is described as ‘especially graceful’ and is shown at the beginning with her father and siblings preparing to go out and sell flowers and matches. His beautiful pencil, gouache and watercolor artwork brings all the emotion, especially in the picture of the girl in the arms of her grandmother at the end, where her face is transformed with joy and light. I feel like he captured the positive impression that Mr. Andersen wanted people to take away. (Puffin Books, 1999)
The Little Match Girl – The text of the story in this version was translated from the original Danish by Anthea Bell, but that’s really a footnote, because this book is all about the artwork. Czech artist Květa Pacovská tells the story through abstract art that includes drawing, painting and collage media. The pictures vary widely, from a pencil drawing of a girl’s face on a upside down ledger paper to a full page of silver paper with a shooting star represented by a multi-colored stripe. A quick first glance gives you the impression that the pictures are hodgepodge, but an understanding of the story gives them meaning. As always, with abstract art, I would love to get the opinion of a child to hear what they think of it. (Penguin Young Readers Group, 2005)
And what did we learn? What I take away from The Little Match Girl is that there are people suffering in poverty all around us and we should do what we can to care for them.