Review: The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman

matchbox diary

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

A great-grandfather shares his life’s story with his great-granddaughter who picks out a cigar box filled with matchboxes to find out more about.  He has been collecting matchboxes that are filled with small items documenting his life, a diary of objects.  They tell of his poor childhood in Italy where he’d be given an olive pit to suck on to make him less hungry.  There is a picture of his father who went to work in America and sent money home.  His story then turns into one of an immigrant with a trip to the port and then aboard a large ship.  He tells of arriving at Ellis Island, of the terror of possibly being denied entrance, and the eventual reunion with his father.  The entire family, including the children, worked to earn enough money to survive.  Life became better and he learned to read until he started in the printing industry and opened a bookstore. 

Fleischman writes of the tentative relationship of a young child and her great-grandfather who are just getting to know one another for the first time.  This is a story filled with small gems, treasures of stories that the two of them explore side by side.  The small matchboxes are a wonderful device to add surprise and delight to the story.  Fleischman has created an entire picture book told only in dialogue, making it a pleasure but challenge to read aloud. 

Ibatoulline’s illustrations are precise and detailed.  The matchboxes are shown up close and just opened, as if the reader had been the one exploring them.  The stories are shown in sepia tones with modern day in full color.  They are filled with a beautiful warmth in both cases.

A distinguished picture book, this is a brilliant combination of historical story and vivid illustrations.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

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