How do you keep a diary if you can’t read or write? In The Matchbox Diary, a little girl discovers the answer when she asks her great-grandfather to tell her the story of the cigar box she finds in his shop. Inside are many matchboxes, and many stories for her great-grandfather to tell her.

The matchboxes hold objects such as an olive pit, which the great-grandfather used to suck on in Italy when he was hungry; sunflower seeds, which marked the days his family spent on the boat to America; and a ticket from a baseball game he attended with his father after arriving. Through these objects we, and his great-granddaughter, learn about his experience of immigration and how he rose from poverty and illiteracy to become an educated business owner.

Written by award-winning children’s author Paul Fleischman (author of the Dunderheads picture books, among many others), The Matchbox Diary tells its tale through a conversation between man and child. The conversational approach draws the reader directly into the scene as the great-grandfather recounts his life story without self-pity or dramatization. The illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, well known for his work on such books as The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, show the present in warm-colored acrylic, while pictures illustrating the past are in black and white or sepia, giving them the appearance of old photographs.

For young readers, The Matchbox Diary is an introduction to the immigrant experience. It also serves as a lesson in the privilege of education and the joy of holding onto memories through diary-keeping or collecting. The last page shows the little girl, who has just started kindergarten, beginning her own object diary in a candy box. Children may be inspired to start their own diaries too, or perhaps become curious about the diaries of their parents and grandparents and the stories they may hold.

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