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Book Review – Matchless (A Christmas Story) by Gregory Maguire

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Book Description:

The beloved author of Wicked reimagines Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story “The Little Match Girl” for modern readers in this charming, beautifully illustrated gift book.

Each year, National Public Radio asks a writer to compose a story with a Christmas theme. In 2008, Gregory Maguire offered a new twist on a classic tale, reinventing the Hans Christian Andersen classic “The Little Match Girl.”

When the story was first translated from Danish and published in England in the mid-nineteenth century, the match girl’s dying visions of lights and a grandmother in heaven were often interpreted as metaphors of religious salvation. In Matchless, Maguire adds a different dimension to the story, intertwining the match girl’s tale with that of a young boy, Frederik, whose own yearnings are the catalyst for a better future for himself and his family. Maguire uses his storytelling magic to rekindle Andersen’s original intentions and to suggest transcendence, the permanence of spirit, and the continuity that links the living and the dead.


Gregory Maguire has made a (best-selling) career out of re-interpreting classic stories by giving us the POV of the minor characters. Matchless (A Christmas Story) is no different, as it is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Match Girl”. This illustrated children’s book is broken down into four parts, where part 2 is an almost faithful retelling of the sad little Match Girl’s tale (except that Gregory Maguire does take some liberties, ie. moved the setting to Christmas Eve & he changed a pretty major detail and two at the end). All the other parts actually focuses on the little street urchin who made off with one of the Match Girl’s shoes in Hans’ story – but Gregory gives him a name (Frederik), a pretty grim backstory of his own, and ties up lonely Frederik’s story to the family that the Match Girl left behind – and we have Matchless (A Christmas Story)!

As Gregory mentions in his notes for the book, he chose to take on “The Little Match Girl” (when the NPR asked him to do a story) mainly because he felt that Hans’ tale has been largely ignored in modern times (since we’re mostly dweebs who think that the kids of today can’t handle the tragic tale of a dying little girl with death visions). Therefore, with a look toward modern sensibilities, Matchless (A Christmas Story) becomes a gentler tale, and has an obvious focus on the story of hope, new life and family. Even the Match Girl’s father (who was a villain who beat the girl in Hans’ story) gets a make-over here to become a sympathetic character. The dark themes are still there (i.e. death and poverty) so parents will have to decide if their little children can handle it (or if they have the time to discuss/explain the concepts to them).

The book is a (very) quick, brief read, and it’s actually best read aloud and acted out (Gregory Maguire actually premiered the book by reading it over NPR radio Christmas of 2008).

The illustrations for the book are b&w pencil sketches, very sparingly drawn by the author himself. I guess they work because of the setting, but I couldn’t help but think that some of the sketches looked amateurish so I was a bit disappointed with that. A really good children’s illustrator would have done so much more to add value to the book IMO.

Matchless (A Christmas Story) by Gregory Maguire is available on Amazon as a Kindle Edition ($9.99), Hardcover ($8.00) or Paperback ($7.14). I am perplexed why there isn’t an Audible version as that would have been the best value version to me.

You can also get the ebook for $9.99 everywhere else (Sony eBook Store, BooksOnBoard, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.)

P.S. I just did a quick search of the NPR archives, and if you’re a bit cash-strapped but do want the story, you can read it online (without the illustrations) on NPR: Matchless: A Christmas Story and there’s even a podcast link there where you can listen in on the original broadcast as Gregory reads his book on air (via NPR audio player). Pretty cool!

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