Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Friday, April 26, 2013

Matched Memories

It's impossible to remember a time when I have not been collecting something.  When I was younger it was rocks, seashells, pressed flowers and stamps.  When my niece and nephew were growing up, I collected what they did, comics and Beanie Babies.  (They have since found new homes with students.)  I have a bowl beside my computer filled with Petoskey stones and beach glass from my walks with Xena.

My love of books has always been a part of my life; my collection growing (sometimes daily).  In looking around my home, it seems the collections which I still have are a reflection of who I am and meaningful points on my life line; of what is important to me.  Paul Fleischman's The Matchbox Diary (Candlewick Press) with illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline is a story of collections and recollections.

"Pick whatever you like the most.  Then I'll tell you its story."

A young girl is meeting and visiting her great-grandfather for the first time.  They are standing in a room with shelves and cases brimming with items he has gathered over the years, antiques, framed pictures, vases, boxes, clocks and books...lots of books.  Her selection, he says, will tell him more about who she is.

She chooses an old cigar box, empty of cigars, but full of matchboxes.  Each box is like a passage in a diary, a record of his life.  Unable to read or write when he was her age, this is how he remembered.

An olive pit inside one recalls his life in Italy.  It reminds him of the olive trees, their home with dirt floors, no heat except for the cooking fire and hunger.  To help with the hunger he would suck on an olive pit given to him by his mother.

A crumpled black and white photograph of his father, the tip of a fountain pen, a piece of macaroni, a bottle cap, a hat pin, a Saint Christopher medal, sunflower seed shells, fish bones, strips of dated newspapers, a tooth, a ticket to a baseball game, a piece of coal, type from an old printing press, each placed inside a box, are silent reminders.  When the box is opened the great-grandfather gives these items life with his voice.  They tell of a long and terrifying sea voyage, the hardships of being an immigrant, of prejudice, and desire...the desire to read and write.

As he grew older his matchbox diary took on a new form.  He looked for items representing the stories of others.  Believing every age, every person, has stories, the gift of one generation is passed to another.  Even when the cover on this book is closed, the tale will continue, person to person to person.

As a reader Paul Fleischman had me hooked after the first two sentences; a story about stories.  Told entirely through the conversations of the child and her great-grandfather, as they open each box, creates an intimacy; the feeling of readers being a part of a shared experience.  Very specific, sensory details, of people and events are attached to each of the items.  The narrative is more than a retelling of the great-grandfather's past experiences though; it's the creation of a new relationship. Here is a sample passage.

"We were headed to Ellis Island, in New York.  Someone told me that men would stick buttonhooks in our eyes there."
"What's a buttonhook?"
"A metal tool for closing up shoes, before there were laces. I had nightmares about the buttonhook men.  Then we had bigger problems. A storm hit us. Maybe a hurricane.  The boat bucked like a horse. ...

The illustrations rendered in acrylic gouache by Bagram Ibatoulline are stunning in their realism. The rich, warm, golden-brown parchment like paper background on the back jacket and cover is replicated not only in the cigar box lid on the front jacket and cover but on all the pages in the book. The opening and closing endpapers are awash in faded, textured denim blue.  Heavy matte-finished pages highlight the artwork, creating a masterful blending of the present with the past.

Whenever the focus of the text is on the great-grandfather and the child, full color visuals (nearly photographic in detail) seem to glow.  In contrast each full page (sometimes crossing the gutter) illustration, also done in intricate detail, reminiscent of the events represented by the item, is done solely in the brown tones of an old-style photograph.  Each time a matchbox is opened to reveal the object inside, the perspective shifts presenting it and the contents in actual size.

 My favorite illustration is of the great-grandfather as a boy when he, his four older sisters and mother are reunited with their father in America.  They are shown in a group hugging one another against the background of a dock with a boat and building. The manner in which the emotions are captured makes this portrayal incredibly moving.

The Matchbox Diary written by Paul Fleischman with illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline is a treasure on numerous levels; stories within a story, a gallery of exquisite visuals, and having value with nearly any age group.  Every time this title is read, the reader will notice something new.  It is unmatched in its unique presentation of the immigration experience and a young boy's need to learn to read and write.

The link embedded in Paul Fleischman's name takes you to his website where he reveals how he came to write this book.  This link take you to one of the two-page spreads in the title. Candlewick Press provides a three-page teacher's guide at this link.

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