Books and souvenirs: The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman

Matchbox Diary cover and catalog link

“Books are like newspapers. They show you where you’ve been.” –The Matchbox Diary

An article in the Post-Gazette recently highlighted the ongoing popularity of picture books for children, even in the surge toward ebooks. Picture books promote literacy by using illustrations to give context to the words, among other things. I especially like this quote from Leonard Marcus: “Picture books are stories told in two languages–text and art. A third language is added by putting these things together as the story is read.” That invisible third language, I think, is universal. Sometimes, people who are very visual express themselves in that third language even if they can’t read or write.

Marcus’ quote reminds me very much of The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman. The book is a serious-but-sweet conversation between an Italian immigrant and his great-granddaughter, centering on a cigar box full of matchboxes full of–sunflower seeds? A tooth?

The boxes, the great-grandfather explains, are his diary of the ship journey from Italy to Ellis Island. Since he couldn’t read or write until much later, he found little odds and ends that encapsulated what he wanted to remember. As he talks in the afternoon light, his memories are illustrated like sepia photographs–leaving in the dusty wagon, the terrible “buttonhook man” who inspected the arriving immigrants, the letters he drew in the coal–and evoke a sense of respect. Their conversation is matter of fact, even casually teasing (“So. You like boxes, just like me. You smoke cigars?” he asks her.). His laid-back earnestness conveys the hardships and hard work of immigration without being grim or too dramatic for young readers.

I particularly like his attitude toward literacy. Learning to read and write was crucial to him, but he never forgets where he came from–not his country, and not his visual beginnings. Writing only brings out the stories his souvenirs already contain. In that way, his boxes are a bit like wordless books. And even though he prizes literacy, he doesn’t pressure his great-granddaughter; until–and after–she learns to write, she can always be a collector.

Further reading:

The Word Collector: I highly recommend this in English or Spanish. It perfectly demonstrates the advantages of being able to manipulate a physical book and gaze at wacky and wonderful pictures.

Show Me a Story: Famous illustrators talk about the importance of pictures.

The Boy Who Loved Words

About Amy

Children's librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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