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Friday, June 7, 2013

The Matchbox Diary, written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2013. $19.00 ages 6 and up

"What's in the little boxes?"
"My diary."
"What's a diary?"
"A way to remember what happens to you. Usually it's a book people write in. When I was your age, I had a lot I wanted to remember, but I couldn't read or write. So I started this. Open the first one."

When a little girl and her great-grandfather meet for the first time, her curiosity is piqued by the many intriguing objects that have a place in his office. The grandfather is equally keen to know something about this new little person in his life. Together, they share the heartfelt story of a young man leaving home for a new beginning in a new world.

Like her grandparent she likes boxes, and the object that draws her initial attention is a cigar box filled with matchboxes. As they open box after tiny box, her grandfather explains what led him to put each of the artifacts in a new box, and how it relates to his life story:

"What is it?"
"An olive pit. I put it in my palm, and I'm right back in Italy. That's where I grew up. Lots of olive trees there. Life was hard - the other reason I saved it. No floor in our house, just dirt. No heat in the winter except the fire under the cooking pot. And sometimes not enough food. When I'd tell my mother I was hungry, she'd give me an olive pit to suck on. It helped."

Each matchbox brings back a clear memory from the man's life. While he couldn't read and write, he could put together a diary that would always provide memories of pivotal times in his life. He recalls for his granddaughter life events, people of importance and the sadness of leaving Italy to find a new life across the ocean. The struggles didn't end when the boat docked and the family set their feet on unfamiliar soil. But, there were happy and productive times as well and they are also chronicled in the tiny boxes, and the conversation between the two.

 A piece of coal marks a turning point in his life:

"...My mother told my father I should go to school. She'd seen me staring at signs and circus posters, trying to understand. Sometimes I'd draw letters with a piece of coal. She wanted me to learn and teach my sisters. Big argument. Days and weeks."

That piece of coal is there in a matchbox. As she listens to his stories, the little one begins to learn her family's history and a to feel an enduring love for this new man in her life.

Paul Fleischman and Bagram Ibatoulline have collaborated on another glorious book, The Animal Hedge (Walker, 2003). They are a matched pair of incredible artists. Ibatoulline’s illustrations, done in acrylic gouache, are filled with detail and light. I appreciate the way he uses warm color for the modern part of the story, and sepia tones to bring past memories to readers. He evokes the emotion for both settings with expressive faces and telling background images.

When I started reading this book with a group of grade eight students, they were sitting back from me as I have come to expect. Before the first turn of the page, some had moved forward. And then more, and more...until we could truly 'share' this memorable tale of family, immigration, literacy and love.

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