by Sam Juliano
I first encountered the remarkable Dr. Katherine Smith at the then Jersey City State College in the fall semester of 1977 in a class titled basically enough: “Children’s Literature.” Smith was an old-fashioned type, born and raised in the mid-west, a perfectionist, whose aptitude for being thorough was only equaled by her passion for her favorite subject and personal hobby: children’s books. She adored the masters: McCloskey, Burton, Cooney, Lionni, Lawson, White, Grahame, L’Engle, Wilder and the d’Aulaires and glowingly discussed their art and examined their work with the intricacy and diligence of a fine tooth comb. I never forgot how vital she regarded the matter of “paper” used in the making of the books. At the time I though she was a bit off her rocker in that regard, but I have now come to appreciate the sensory, often intoxicating quality of a good picture book made with the right texture and design. It is, I have learned the difference between when may be a great read and a book of permanence, one that will forever be cherished and re-visited because the paper has successfully collaborated on the reading of a book.
Picture books about the immigrant experience have become almost commonplace over the past two decades, but the frequency of excellence has been relatively rare. Allan Say won the Caldecott Medal for his deeply moving and distinguished Grandfather’s Journey in 1993; P.J. Lynch won the coveted (British) Kate Greenaway Medal for his arresting work on Amy Hest’s 1993 When Jesse Came Across the Sea, and Ted Lewin won a Caldecott Honor for the beautiful illustrations for 1993’s story on an impoverished family of Italian immigrants, Peppe the Lamplighter in what represent some of the finest books on the subject.
Celebrated Newbery Medal winning author Paul Fleischman has fashioned a powerful tale in the immigrant literature, offering up a clever conceit of an elderly man showcasing a diary of objects to his great-granddaughter that are all housed in matchboxes. While it took many years for him to read or write he found a brilliant way to record the events of his life. One is an olive pit from his native Italy, which was given to him by his mother to suck on when the family had nothing to eat. The grandfather explains: “I put it in my palm, and I’m right back in Italy. That’s where I grew up. Lots of olive trees there. Life was hard – the other reason I saved it. No floor in our house, just dirt. No heat in winter except the fire under the cooking pot. And sometimes not enough food. When I’d tell my mother I was hungry, she’s give me an olive pit to such on. It helped.” The parched photo illustration of the father who moved to America to work was pulled from another matchbox with this anecdote: “My father never went to school. Back then, most kids had to help their parents all day. He had to get someone to write his letters home from America. When one came, we had a problem. Four older sisters, my mother, and me. None of us could read. We had to take it to the schoolmaster.” The old man opens another matchbox and grabs a macaroni elbow, explaining: “There was a year with no rain. No wheat. No macaroni. The schoolmaster wrote a letter to my father for us. We waited. A long time later, a letter came back, with tickets to sail to America. When we left, my grandmother cried in the road: ‘You’ll eat the food there and forget your home!’ Over and over.”
Later ‘story starters’ include a soda bottle cap, which denotes a trip to Naples and seeing soda in bottles for the first time; a hairpin found on a ship runway below a deck of rich ladies with big hats; nineteen sunflower seeds to record the duration of time it took to reach “La Statua della Liberta” and Ellis Island; a fish scale to represent work in the canneries; a lost tooth incurred after a tone attack from people who resented Italians taking up residence in the U. S.; and the octogenarian’s “favorite,” a ticket stub of his first baseball game, where he found some matchboxes and a quarter under the stands. Finally a piece of coal and some printing press letters chronicle the then young man’s years in school and then as a printer, the profession from he now collects antiques and other people’s “diaries”: “old things that people had saved for years, filled with stories.” There is a certain appeal for young readers in cross-generational relationships and bonds that develop in exploring them almost exclusively in dialogue.
The illustrations by renowned Russian-American illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline are simply-stunning in their album-like composition. Done in acrylic gouache in the sepia-toned style of age-worn parchments that give each page a sense of time, recall Christopher Bing’s Caldecott Honor winning Casey at the Bat, also set in turn-of-the-century locations, and are likewise presented with a welcome dearth of sentimentality, yet with a compelling undercurrent of romanticism and personal aspiration. Ibattouline, whose gorgeous work for Deborah Noyes in Hana in the Time of the Tulips and several other works signaled a major talent years ago may well have created his masterpiece here for Fleischman. The faces of the characters are emotionally expressive, and speak of difficult lines and cherished dreams in a book of astonishing detail and realism that has all but disappeared in the present period of fantasy and the abstract. Ibatoulline’s’ art is so exquisitely realistic that they could easily be mistaken from actual photographs. He uses warm and rich color to display the present and as a counterpoint to the past in sepia and its aching memories. And he knows how to make paper part of the reading experience. Who would have ever thought the sense of feel would play such a major role in negotiating a book?
Note: The review of ‘The Matchbook Diary” is the third in the series of Caldecott Medal hopefuls being posted at the site.