The Matchbox Diary


Written by Paul Fleischman, Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

Candlewick Press, 2013

“Pick whatever you like most. Then I’ll tell you its story.”

The plot in a nutshell: A man shares the story of his immigration to America with his great-granddaughter

The little girl picks a cigar box filled with matchboxes and her great-grandfather tells her it’s his diary, started when he was a little boy, before he could read or write. One by one, she opens the matchboxes and he tells her the story of each of the items she finds inside. The first one she opens contains an olive pit, from his early childhood in Italy, when his mother gave him olive pits to suck on when they didn’t have enough food. As they go through the matchboxes, he tells her about how his father went to America and the rest of the family joined him there later. His story includes a frightening moment at Ellis Island, going to work as child labor in the canneries and racial persecution, but it also has happy moments like his first baseball game, the pride he took in his education and his career as a typesetter before opening his own business. The story ends as the little girl begins her own collection.

Author Paul Fleischman tells us this story entirely in dialogue spoken between the little girl and her great-grandfather. The fact that this is their first meeting makes this interaction more personal and meaningful, especially when you see that learning more about him results in her learning more about herself. Mr. Fleischman does an impressive job of capturing the young boy’s immigration experience with a believable balance of emotions, without ever sounding self-pitying.

He learned to write by copying letters on the sidewalk.

He learned to write by copying letters on the sidewalk.

Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations, in acrylic gouache, are beautifully photorealistic. In the scenes between the little girl and her great-grandfather, the pictures are in full gorgeous colors with crisp lines and details. As the diary tells his story, the pictures from his past are presented in sepia tones, with more shading and soft lines, providing a lovely contrast in the pictures. I was continually drawn back to the first illustration of the great grandfather’s room, filled with books, cabinets, clocks and curios of all kinds. It’s the kind of room where you could spend all day looking at things and still not see everything.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that you should preserve your past in a way that’s meaningful to you, so that it will be more special when you share it with others.


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