December 16, 2008
Anna Christopher, NPR





December 16, 2008; Washington, D.C. – On an island so far north it snows from September to April, a place where a boy’s imagination keeps him warm and his mother hems dresses for the Queen, acclaimed author Gregory Maguire introduces “Matchless,” an original Christmas story penned exclusively for NPR. In “Matchless,” Maguire, author of the novel Wicked, reimagines the Hans Christian Andersen classic “The Little Match Girl” for a new time, and new audiences. NPR News’ All Things Considered will broadcast Maguire’s reading of the short story on Christmas Day; excerpts are also below.

In addition to airing on All Things Considered, the complete text of “Matchless” will be posted in three parts over three days at, beginning tomorrow, December 17. Maguire will talk about creating this new holiday fairy tale on NPR News’ Weekend Edition this Sunday, December 21. Separately, an illustrated gift edition of “Matchless” will be published by William Morrow in fall 2009.

In “Matchless,” Maguire reilluminates Andersen’s classic, setting the tragic tale within the context of a broader story, for a new audience. When “The Little Match Girl” was first translated from Danish and published in England in the mid-19th century, audiences likely interpreted the match girl's dying visions of lights and a grandmother in heaven as metaphors of religious salvation. In the centuries since, Andersen’s ending has likely lost much of its original capacity for comfort. Now, Maguire weaves 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.

"Andersen's ‘The Little Match Girl’ is a more luckless relative of the likes of Oliver Twist, Sara Crewe and Little Orphan Annie,” says Maguire. “Her brief life and sad demise could bring 19th century readers to tears, and did. Now, while we shudder at the fatalism of her plight, we can't deny the grip that cold and hunger maintains over the poor. In 'Matchless' I tried to honor Andersen's original tale while maintaining the poignancy of the central event, and by setting it in a larger context I hoped to extend and perhaps refresh its ability to console."

Other NPR holiday stories from years’ past are aggregated at NPR Holiday 2008 – – where there are also Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s concerts; seasonal recipes; and tips on how to make your gift giving “Eco-nomical.” Also new this holiday season, NPR Books – – introduces “Best Books of 2008,” in which NPR book critics and contributors name their top picks from the year. Lists include John McAlley’s “The Big Pictures: Best Gift Books 2008” and Maureen Coorigan’s “Top Five Crime and Mystery Novels of 2008,” among many more to be announced through the season.

All Things Considered, NPR's signature afternoon newsmagazine, is hosted by Melissa Block, Michele Norris and Robert Siegel, and reaches more than 11.6 million listeners weekly. To find local stations and broadcast times, visit

“Matchless,” By Gregory Maguire
NPR News’ All Things Considered

Excerpts must be credited to “Gregory Maguire for NPR News’ All Things Considered.” This story is copyrighted material. No reproduction or excerpting is permitted without written consent.

The following are excerpts from the three acts and conclusion of “Matchless”:


On an island so far north that it snowed from September to April, a boy named Frederik kept himself warm by keeping a secret.

Some mornings the top of the water in the kitchen jug had frozen into a disc of ice. Frederik had to smash it with a wooden spoon. He piled the pieces of ice in a saucer, reminded of the way that harbor ice broke up in a thaw. Small ice made musical clinking sounds; large ice groaned like his mother. “Not dawn, not yet!” she protested through her morning congestion. “The troubles of another day come to haunt me. Where are you, my sweet ginger biscuit?”

“I’m making your tea to warm you up,” replied Frederik.

He hurried to light the kitchen fire. Money was scarce, and this was the last match until his mother could afford to buy more, so he struck it carefully. The warmth on his fingers made him want—quick—to use them to make something clever before they became stiff with cold again. His fingers were the only clever part of him.

“My useful child,” said the widow Pedersen. “Tea on a cold morning: a reason to live. But this”—she grimaced—“pfaah! It’s thin as rainwater. Have you made one scoop of leaves do for a whole pot?”

“The canister is nearly empty.”

“It’s Christmas Eve: I’m paid today. I’ll buy some more.”

“We need matches, too.”


In a lane off the main square a small girl shivered in her threadbare shawl.

All day she had been hoping to sell the matches in her apron pocket. All day long she had sung: “Light your tapers on Christmas Eve with a new match!” But she hadn’t sold a single match, and by nighttime her voice had shriveled. “Matches, I have matches for sale.”

She didn’t dare go home without a single coin. And home held no warmth, anyway, not since the death of her mother.

She wandered this way and that—how crowded the streets were this late on Christmas Eve! As she was crossing the boulevard, a pair of horses dragging a coach raced by. The girl dashed out of their way. The slippers that had belonged to her mother—they were too loose, but all the girl had left of her—they fell off. A carter’s donkey claimed one slipper for its supper. “Oh,” cried the match girl, “Oh!”


“Christmas Day, my dimpled dumpling!” Oh, la! — precious oranges, and anise cookies, and fragrant dust of nutmeg to stir into his morning milk. While Dame Pedersen dawdled over her tea, Frederik hurried upstairs to arrange his little folk in their new boat, and help them set sail to find their necessary neighbors and kin. Setting the slipper down, however, he shook something in it loose. An iron key with a paper tag attached.

Now Frederik guessed that the shoe had been lost by accident. Since he couldn’t understand his letters, he plunged downstairs to ask his mother to read the tag. It was an address. “An invitation?” wondered Frederick. “A nuisance,” said his mother, but he pestered her until she was overcome. She knew he couldn’t find an address on his own, so they made their way hand in hand across the causeway and through quiet streets to locate the address attached to the key.


Frederik wasn’t frightened of ghosts, and though the world was masked with vapor, eventually he found the causeway. Starting across, he heard a belligerent sound. He recognized it as plates of ice jamming in the mouth of the harbor channel, grinding their cold edges against one another. With the outlet plugged, and the snow melting, the harbor water was rising. Inches of seawater flooded the causeway.

He stood still. He couldn’t see his way forward along the causeway, nor could he retrace his steps. A false step would drown him, and no boat in the shape of a mother’s slipper would come sidling up to rescue him.

“Oh,” he prayed aloud, “let me get home to my sisters! I have marzipan fruits for them!”

The water lapped higher as bells began to ring in the muffling fog. He blinked, and then he saw a little light, a momentary flare held out by an invisible hand. He reached toward it and the light went out. But, look, another!—several feet beyond, so he took a step forward. A third flame winked beyond that, and then a fourth. Small brief lights, but helpful as matches struck just in time.