In 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 For days after hearing the story, I was quiet and withdrawn, my thoughts with the poor, cold match girl and her pathetic wares.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.