The Matchbox Diary

The Matchbox Diary, written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, is a nominee for the 2015-16 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

The Matchbox Diary takes readers on a journey through one man’s life. This man tells his great-granddaughter to choose one item in the room, and he’ll tell her a story about it. The girl chooses an old cigar box full of matchboxes. But there are no matches in these boxes. Each box carries a memory of her great-grandfather’s life, from his earliest days in Italy, through his family’s journey across the sea to Ellis Island, to their lives as Italian immigrants in an often unfriendly new world. Though he couldn’t read or write (at first), these matchboxes allowed this man to keep his memories alive to share with future generations.

The narrative of this book is presented entirely through dialog, which might make it a poor choice for read-alouds, especially with younger readers who have very little background knowledge of immigration. That being said, I think this would be an excellent addition in older grades’ studies of immigration, how families were often split up for a while, the long journey to America, and what immigrants encountered once they arrived.

The true strength of The Matchbox Diary, in my opinion, is in the illustrations. While the narrative seems a bit choppy at times, the gorgeous, detailed illustrations make the grandfather’s stories come alive. I expect no less from Bagram Ibatoulline, and he definitely delivers in this book.

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City of Orphans

It’s 1893, and New York City is teeming with people–immigrants, crooks, cops, and, most of all, kids. Kids just trying to survive, trying to make a few cents to help their families. One of these kids is Maks Geless. Maks is a newsie. (He sells newspapers on street corners.)

One night, Maks runs into some trouble on his way home from work. Trouble by the name of Bruno and the Plug Ugly Gang. Maks is sure he’s dead meat…until a dirty, homeless girl with a big stick saves him. This girl, Willa, has lived in the streets for months, and Maks figures the least he can do is give her a place to stay for coming to his rescue. So Maks takes Willa home to stay with his family.

Maks’ family, immigrants from Denmark, lives in a tenement, nearly ten people crammed into one small apartment, but it’s home, and they’re all together…until Maks’ older sister Emma is arrested! Maks is sure that Emma must be innocent. There’s simply no way she could have stolen a watch from someone at the new, fancy Waldorf hotel where she works. Maks’ parents are unfamiliar with the way things really work in America, so it’s up to Maks–and his new friend Willa–to figure out just what happened with Emma and the case of the stolen watch.

All the while, Maks and Willa have to watch out for the scary Bruno and this gang, just waiting to terrorize them and take their meager earnings. Can these two kids save their own necks while trying to get Maks’ sister out of jail? And is anyone willing to help two poor kids–who have no money–without expecting something in return? What will these two junior detectives discover in their quest for the truth? The answers will shock even them and will have the power to turn their worlds upside down. Learn how two kids navigate the perilous waters of turn-of-the-century New York when you read City of Orphans by Avi!

This book is nominated for the 2013-14 South Carolina Children’s and Junior Book Awards.

Inside Out & Back Again

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, a nominee for the 2012-2013 South Carolina Children’s Book Award, tells about a year in the life of a young girl in 1975.  The girl, Hà, leaves everything she’s ever known in South Vietnam in the hopes of a better life in America.  This book, a novel in verse, was a super-fast read, but it definitely shed some light on what Vietnamese immigrants, particularly children, may have faced when they escaped a war-torn—but familiar—Vietnam for a new home that was often more frightening that what they left behind.  This story is even more real because it draws on the author’s own experiences.  Inside Out & Back Again is a powerful read that I won’t soon forget.

Ten-year-old Hà and her family know that change is coming.  War has torn their country apart and claimed one of their own.  Although they are reluctant to leave Vietnam behind, there seems to be no other choice.  Hà doesn’t want to leave her beloved papaya tree, her friends, or the hope that her father will return, but she must go with her family on a journey to a peaceful new home.  But the journey itself is anything but peaceful…

Along with so many other refugees, Hà and her family board a ship that takes them away from the bombs and bullets that plague their home in Saigon.  Food and water are scarce.  Privacy is non-existent.  There are so many people seeking asylum, and no one knows when they can expect to be rescued.  So they cross the sea in hopes that an ally will come along.  And one day, it happens.  An American ship escorts them to Guam where Hà’s family makes plans to go to America.  Eventually, they are sponsored and taken to a place completely foreign to them—Alabama.

Hà is confused by her new home.  She doesn’t understand why the English language has so many confusing rules.  She doesn’t know why her new schoolmates make fun of her.  She doesn’t understand why so many people in the town seem to hate her family on sight.  She doesn’t like the food that is so different from everything she enjoyed in Vietnam.  Hà does know that she is angry, and she longs to find some peace with her new and often frightening circumstances.  With the help of her mother, brothers, and a few neighbors and friends, Hà discovers an inner strength that helps her to adapt to the sudden changes in her life and stand up for herself when others want to push her down.

Inside Out & Back Again is a story of one girl’s journey to a new home and a better understanding of herself, her family, and what it takes to heal from the scars of the past.  This is a wonderful book that I think would be excellent supplemental reading for classes studying the Vietnam War.  A lot of times, this period in history tends to be glossed over, especially when considering the plight of Vietnamese refugees in America.  I’ve taken loads of history classes throughout my education, and I can’t remember a single instance of studying about how the Vietnamese—particularly children—were treated after the war was over.  This book fills a void in historical fiction, and I look forward to sharing it with the teachers at my school as a possible novel study with our fifth grade students.

This book is an excellent selection for any elementary, middle, or high school libraries.  Children, teens, and adults alike will find this book, a Newbery Honor Book and National Book Award winner, extremely moving, and I hope that it will make them think about their own stories and how they may intertwine with the stories of people the world over.