The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

To a modern audience, The Little Match Girl is unbearably tragic. Perhaps, like me, you vividly recall reading your version of this story as a young kid and being profoundly affected. For me, it was probably the first time I considered the possibility of childhood death.

Hans Christian Andersen was commissioned to write a story based on a woodcut. This woodcut illustration was by painter Johan Thomas Lundbye and was of a poor girl selling matches, dressed in rags. It was widely recognised in Denmark at the time and appeared in calendars with a caption encouraging people to give to the poor. Lundbye himself died at the age of 29, during the Three Years War in Denmark but it’s not clear whether he was accidentally shot or whether he took his own life.


For the Victorians, child death was all around them. These days when a young life ends we focus on all the years lost. But the Victorian mindset was a little different. Sad as death inevitably still was, the focus was not on the years wasted but on the opportunities presented when one is able to fly up to heaven with their childhood innocence intact.

Alison Lurie writes not of The Little Match Girl but of Peter Pan when she talks about the Victorian ideology of childhood innocence, but it applies equally to the mindset of Hans Christian Andersen:

In every society, every century, some time of life seems to embody current cultural ideals and have superior prestige. In ancient China, we are told, the greatest honor was given to old age; America in the 1960s admired teenagers, attributing to them boundless energy, political altruism, and a polymorphously joyous sensuality.

The Victorians, on the other hand, preferred children who had not yet reached puberty. The natural innocents of Blake and Wordsworth reappeared in middlebrow versions in hundreds of nineteenth-century stories and poems, always uncannily good and sensitive, with an angelic beauty and charm that often move the angels to carry them off. But the early death of these children was not felt as wholly tragic, for if they never became adults they would escape worldly sin and suffering; they would remain forever pure and happy.

Don’t Tell The Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature

How do we really know this is set in Victorian times, though? That is the assumption, because Hans Christian Andersen lived during this time, and the sensibilities line up. But this is a more timeless story than that, and others adapting this tale have chosen a variety of different eras and places for the story. Another common era for setting this story is the early 20th century, sometimes in an American city, sometimes in London. Continue reading “The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen”

A Storybook [X]

“Storybook” as adjective is applied to various places and objects. English has recently borrowed the Scandinavian concept of “hygge” to mean something similar.

We might also use the word holotypic (from the noun holotype) when talking about something which stands in for ‘the accepted, archetypal version’ of an object or idea. It actually comes from botany, but I’m borrowing it for picture books.

People who are good at Pictionary aren’t necessarily the best at drawing — instead they tend to understand the difference between a holotypic depiction versus an idiosyncratic one.

The holotypic car has four wheels, so when Mr Bean drives a three-wheeled reliant regal, this is seen as a quirk.

In picture books, the holotypic house has a pitched roof and is surrounded by garden. Anything else draws attention to that.

As much as I like ‘holotypic’, ‘storybook’ is a more widely accepted term.

What does it mean to be a ‘storybook [X]’?


In her novel We Were The Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates describes High Point Farm:

The gravel drive is lined with tall aging spruces. Around the house are five enormous oaks and I mean enormous–the tallest is easily three times the height of the house and the house is three storeys. In summer everything is overgrown, you have to stare up the drive to see the house–what a house! In winter, the lavender house seems to float in midair, buoyant and magical as a house in a child’s storybook. And that antique slight in the front yard, looking as if the horse had just trotted away to leave the lone passenger behind–a human figure, a tenderly comical scarecrow wearing old clothes of Dad’s.

storybook house
A storybook house From Songs We Sing (A Big Golden Book), illustrated by William Dugan, 1957

If you’re an artist and you ever sit down to illustrate a picture book, even if you’ve not considered this question before it may come up as you illustrate: How much of your illustration is going to be ‘storybook’? Which parts of the illustration will draw attention to themselves by not being classically ‘storybook’?

For there are certain ‘storybook’ ways of depicting certain objects. The interior of a child’s bedroom will have a single bed, elevated on four legs (or perhaps bunks); curtains on the window, a few toys scattered artfully around (likely some books). A futon on the floor or a foldout sofa will draw attention to itself. A child’s house will basically be clean, with no peeling wallpaper, or crayon marks where a parent tried to scrub off two-year-0ld artwork and didn’t quite manage it that time. Storybook homes are not mobile ones. They are most typically found in leafy suburbs.

My Goodnight Book: pictures by Eloise Wilkin Children's illustrator, book author and doll designer.
My Goodnight Book: pictures by Eloise Wilkin Children’s illustrator, book author and doll designer.

Parents will drive sensible family cars like station wagons (not convertibles fitted out with child booster seats). Towns will comprise everyone’s idea of perfect capitalism: a grocer’s, a butcher’s, a bakery, rather than the more likely alternative of Walmarts in America and The Warehouse in New Zealand…

Fathers go out to work in the morning rather than at night. They wear button down shirts and carry briefcases. Families eat breakfast together.

These are not rules, of course. These are simply the storybook conventions which don’t draw attention to themselves. Except when they do. Like when more and more readers become dissatisfied with the fact that this storybook world we imagine is in fact a white, middle-class world, which seems to have the 1950s era as an ideal, even when modernity is also apparent.


Manchester-by-the-sea provides (some of) the filming location for a sad adult film Manchester By The Sea. The juxtaposition between the depressing storyline and the beautiful scenery stands out to make our main character seem even sadder.

What does it take to achieve Storybook Town status?

  • A clear delineation between seasons, with red leaves in autumn, snow in winter
  • Curved, narrow, tree-lined roads which meander rather than grid
  • A slightly hilly terrain
  • Near the sea
  • Where there are boats
  • Brightly coloured weatherboard or brick two-storied houses, with crisp white trim
  • Low stone walls for fences
  • A variety of greens in the foliage
  • Bright blue skies at certain times of the year
  • Coves, harbours and creeks
  • Place names with clear Anglo meanings like Cathedral Pines, Cornerstone Church and Central Pond.


If you do a Google image search for “storybook charm” you get

  • houses with high, gabled roofs, dormer windows and established English gardens
  • lit up from the inside
  • windows with drapery
  • quilts
  • rose bushes
  • log cabins in the woods
  • certain types of architecture such as exposed timber interiors and arched interior doorways
  • views from the tops of mountains into secluded valleys sheltering cosy little towns
  • outdoor seating with cushions brought out from inside for the occasion
  • falling down little sheds at the bottoms of gardens
  • interesting stairways
  • different patterns brought together but still in a matching kind of way, much like a kimono ensemble
  • manicured lawns
  • paths leading to front doors, often curved
  • canopy beds
  • treasures hidden in chests
  • lamps on stands

Lane Smith apparently lives in a house with ‘storybook charm’. Pictures here.