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Crying While Reading

February 6, 2013 | by

rackham_matchgirl1In second grade, I first read “The Little Match Girl.” To the uninitiated, this Hans Christian Andersen tale is about a beggar girl who, on Christmas Eve, warms herself by burning her matches one by one, imagining happier times with her dead grandmother by their light. In a final blaze, she imagines herself warm and happy, surrounded by love and the lights of a Christmas tree. Then we learn she’s actually frozen to death.

I was, to put it mildly, traumatized by the story. It haunted me. In the years since, I have learned that this is not an uncommon reaction; no fewer than two of my adult friends have revealed that, from time to time, “The Little Match Girl” intrudes on their thoughts and casts them into the doldrums. But as a seven-year-old, I was wholly unable to deal with my emotions. For days after hearing the story, I was quiet and withdrawn, my thoughts with the poor, cold match girl and her pathetic wares. My teacher, Mrs. Romer, noticed, and asked if everything was okay. I said yes, but one day, thinking of the tiny frozen body on the streets of wintry Copenhagen during a math lesson, I burst into uncontrollable sobs.

The fallout was humiliating. Mrs. Romer asked me to eat lunch with her privately so we could discuss what was bothering me; who knows what trauma she thought to uncover. I was too embarrassed to admit the actual source of my anguish—I knew it to be wildly babyish, as well as irrational—so I quickly concocted a lame story about my brother having the flu. I guess the implication was that I was afraid for his life; in any case, it was unconvincing enough that she called my parents.

Having learned early the dangers of giving into lit-related emotion, I was pleased to see a feature titled What to Do When Books Make You Cry on Public Transportation on BookRiot. Their advice is common sensical and wide-ranging, but does not address the concerns of younger readers. And, really, there is no time like childhood for emotionally wrenching books—if memory serves, in one school year we read Bridge to Terabithia, Number the Stars, Hatchet, and Where the Red Fern Grows. In one school year! Maybe our teachers were trying to toughen us up for public reading; personally, I think holding it together for Cormac McCarthy is a cakewalk after Sounder. “The Little Match Girl,” however, should be reserved for the truly stony hearted. Or at least the over-seven set.



  1. Lisa | February 6, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Oh dear- how right you are. For the most part, fairytales were not created for children to read. Studying folk narratives in my Masters degree has given an entirely new meaning to Little Red Riding Hood. These tales originated as adult fiction, and as the meaning of childhood changed, these little tales were cleaned up.

  2. Preeti | February 6, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    This is fantastic! I didn’t even think to add any of the books that wrecked me when I was younger to the Book Riot post. THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL absolutely broke my heart, and ugh, don’t even get me started on WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS.

  3. Sadie Stein | February 6, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    @Lisa – agreed! Although Hans Andersen’s are in a league all their own (and without the excuse of ancient allegory!)

    @Preeti I loved your piece! As a grownup, I once cried over a Mansfield short story on the F, and it became the pretext for a creepy overture, so the adult need is very much there!

  4. Steph | February 6, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Sounder, yes, I was horrified. And how about Bambi? To this day I hold a grudge against my now departed parents for exposing me to that story, and allowing me to watch the film. I’m all for evoking emotion while reading, but as you point out, let’s spare our single digit youth from the lifelong ravages of those images. Geez…

  5. Chris | February 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Sounder is definitely gut-wrenching. I read it in 4th grade was floored.

  6. heliana | February 7, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Ugh, that brings back memories. I had to be ‘the matchstick girl’ for a winter pageant in my native Romania – I think I might have been in the second or third grade. Some fool had put the whole Christian Andersen story on verse and we had to memorize it and play it in front of our fairly horrified parents. The story fit the Communist narrative of ‘rotten Western values” perfectly 🙂 I remember the skit was so soppy, sad, and successful I got nicknamed ‘the match stick girl’ for an entire school year.

  7. Will | February 9, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    I still don’t understand why you couldn’t have just told your teacher why this made you cry.

  8. Thisby | February 10, 2013 at 2:52 am

    Steph, I agree with you about Bambi. I was an avid reader from the age of 5 and my mother thought I would enjoy seeing the film version of Bambi. I remember being totally destroyed, crying uncontrollably. My mom couldn’t calm me down so she took me to see my dad, who was watching Friday night boxing at the Moose Lodge with his buds. One look at the stuffed moose head on the wall and I was inconsolable again! I never let my kids watch that movie and I hope their kids won’t watch either.

    Anyway, all that sappy sentimental stuff in books for young kids, especially the precocious kind of readers like I was… phooey! I’m surprised I didn’t end up in therapy.

  9. bob | February 11, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Hell, I can’t read The Happy Prince without crying at 38. It’s not even particularly subtle or particularly manipulative.

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