The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: Count me as one who never tires of immigration stories! They are the heart and soul of who we are as a nation and each one brings a new version of the experience. There are so many good ones but Paul Fleischman and Bagram Ibatoulline have teamed up to give us something special in The Matchbox Diary (Candlewick 2013).
In the opening 2-page spread an older man and a young girl stand in a sun-drenched inviting room filled with books and fascinating objects.
“Pick whatever you like the most. Then I’ll tell you its story.”
There is a life-time of choices in that room but the little girl snuggles in on her great-grandfather’s lap with a cigar box spilling over with tiny matchboxes. Together they open the first little box and as we turn the page, the color washes away and we step back into time, propelled by the olive pit inside the box – and the memories it holds. Each small memento tells a piece of the great-grandfather’s story. His Italian family was so poor that everyone had to help at home. There was no time for him to go to school and his father went away to find work in America. Then the family too left for America. Each small box holds a chapter of the story – a part of a diary of a life. It is a story of hard work and sacrifice but it is a story of happiness and success too.
The sepia-toned pages of the great-grandfather’s past contrast wonderfully with the rich red tones of the present. The sense of a life well-lived and truly appreciated flows tangibly from these scenes, making this story warm and alive. As beautifully written as it is beautifully illustrated, this will be a treasure for immigration units but also for families – wherever they came from.
Cindy: Count me as one who never tires of family storytelling. Books in which family histories are shared with younger members are so important, and often can encourage the reader to share a few stories of their own. Years ago at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee I heard Alex Haley spin some stories and one line was imprinted on me:
“When an old person dies it’s like a library has burned down.”
There are many ways to keep a diary, but for someone who was illiterate, like the great-grandfather was as a boy, the challenge is great. The idea of keeping small objects in a matchbox collection to trigger the memories is wonderful, and even better that it is based on a real matchbox diary (according to the author info on the jacket flap). Adele Geras wrote a novel years ago called Apricots at Midnight in which a mother tells a daughter stories all winter based on fabric blocks in a quilt. This book brought that one to mind.
When I worked in the public library in the mid 80s I held a grandparent’s day program for kids and their grandparents. I gave some suggested topics and then had the grandparents tell a family story. The child did the illustration and depending on the age the grandparent and/or grandchild wrote the story down. We bound them together as books for the child to take home.
I especially love the final page as the young girl flies home, carrying a mostly empty candy box with a few treasures tucked inside, one of which shared from her great-grandfather’s collection. She is ready to start her own version of a matchbox diary. Family traditions. Love them.