Posted by Karen O'Hanlon
Title: The Matchbox Diary
Author: Paul Fleischman
Illustrator: Bagram Ibatoulline
A diary is a book filled with words that help you to remember what happened. But how do you keep a diary if you aren’t able to read or write? The Matchbox Diary is about such a boy, grasping for a way to remember his changing life, and succeeding.
An aging grandfather meets his five-year-old granddaughter for the first time. In a room lined with bookshelves, framed pictures and wooden cabinets, he tells the young girl to pick any object. Whichever one she likes most, and he will tell her its story. From an array of antique vases, brass lamps and clocks, colorful glass bottles, and hand-carved jewelry chests, she picks the perfect item—something that’s not like the rest, something that’s more than it seems—an old cigar box filled with worn little cardboard matchboxes.
Grandfather sits down in a carved wooden armchair and Granddaughter inches up close to his shoulder. Then together, they begin to slide open the rectangular containers one by one. As they do, we are treated to a series of awakened memories, stories sparked by the sight of what lies within.
The first box contains an olive pit. Doesn’t sound like much, but for the old man, memories flow from it. The olive pit reminds him of his home country, Italy, where olive trees dotted the landscape. He remembers being a little boy, living in poverty, no heat in winter. Nothing but dirt floors and his mother giving him an olive pit to suck on whenever he was hungry but there was no food.
Each box contains another object, another layer of grandfather’s story of immigrating to America. A crumpled black and white photo of his own father, who immigrated before his family, then sent his children a photo so they would not forget him. The nib of an ink pen reminded Grandfather that he could someday learn to read and write. The piece of macaroni his tearful grandmother gave him when he was leaving for America. A bottle cap found in the steamship station where the family slept on the floor for three nights, as they waited for a boat to take them to America. A woman’s hairpin. A Saint Christopher medal. Sunflower seeds. All mundane objects until Grandfather shares the stories behind them.
Browns, golds and sepias saturate page after page of The Matchbox Diary. Antique-looking illustrations are soaked through with warmth, amplifying the tenderness of grandparent and grandchild’s first meeting. Whether we’re seated in a library full of books and curiosity cabinets, crossing the Atlantic in the bowels of a steamer, or landing at Ellis Island, the pictures draw us in with timeless affection. Even the tiny matchbox lids are printed with intricate drawings of lions, ostriches, winged horses, bears and locomotives. The visual details of the illustrations offer a chance to deepen a child’s understanding through good conversation. The Matchbox Dairy can be enjoyed many times, changing with each reading, as newly perceived details evoke a fresh round of discussion.
My own grandson was born not too long ago. I look forward to the day when he’s old enough to lean into my shoulder, me sitting in my carved armchair, and together we share the sense of history and tradition that emerge from The Matchbox Diary.