Book Review: The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman

The Matchbox Diary
The Matchbox Diary is a transgenerational tale of hardship, perseverance, and hope.

A small object can bring back a flood of memory. In Paul Fleischman’s latest picture book, The Matchbox Diary, a little girl discovers an age-old cigar box filled with a collection of matchboxes. Each matchbox that she opens holds a memento of her great-grandfather. They remind him of unusual, exciting stories when he was a child. He shares his memories with her.

Among Great-grandfather’s finds are an olive pit, macaroni, a bottle cap, and a hairpin. Great-grandfather and his family lived in rural Italy before they immigrate to America. Life is difficult, and everyone works hard to earn a living. There is not much food on the table or anywhere. His mother gives him an olive pit to suck when he is hungry.

In addition to extreme poverty, the family doesn’t know how to read or write. With his mother and siblings, Great-grandfather travels to be with his father in America. There, he has an opportunity to attend a school and learn typesetting. At night, he comes back home to teach his sisters.

The story moves quickly as she reveals each item from the matchboxes. I really like the fast pace of this book and how the author uses a conversation between an adult and a child to tell the whole story. The readers will want to know more about the 19-day sea journey from Italy to Ellis Island and the big progress Great-grandfather makes once he gets settled in the new land despite the odds against him.

The book’s soft and detailed illustrations are done well. Bagram Ibatoulline makes an excellent choice in using earth-toned colors to convey this nostalgic, bittersweet tale. The pictures of objects, places, and characters are large enough to draw children’s attention.

On his website, Paul Fleischman mentioned his artist friend, Gary Hamel, who inspired him to write The Matchbox Diary. Fleischman saw Hamel’s matchbox diary of a recent trip to Italy. He asked for Hamel’s permission to write about his keepsakes but the idea stayed with him for fifteen years before it blossomed into a story.

The Matchbox Diary is a Kirkus Reviews’ best picture book of 2013. I highly recommend it to readers aged 6-10 who are interested in reading about immigrant stories and new cultures.

About the Author

Sukalaya Kenworthy is a youth associate at the Central Library. She is from Bangkok, Thailand.

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