There was a time when matchboxes were ubiquitous, now there are probably children who will need the concept of a matchbox explained or shown to them. But once that’s done, I suspect many children will want to start their own matchbox diary – and adults too. It's such a great idea: a diary kept by preserving small keepsakes in a collection of matchboxes.
The great-grandfather who kept this diary tells his great granddaughter that he had a lot to remember but couldn’t read or write so this was his way of preserving memories.
I love that one small insertion of a line because it points to valuing the lives of the illiterate – something that is terribly hard to do when so much of our stories and histories rely upon writing and reading. And also to respecting the intelligence and wisdom of individuals who aren’t literate.
The great grandfather does learn to read and write, but the recognition that he had wisdom and memories worth preserving prior to that is important to the story too. This is an immigration story – a family follows their father from Italy to New York and live a hard but ultimately joyful life.
The great-grandfather learns to read and prospers in his new land; he delights in telling his great granddaughter something about his early life, while encouraging her to live her own life fully.
There are lots of clues to a life well lived in this story:
Courage displayed by the father who first left Italy and the rest of the family who followed
Hope in searching for a better life that was still hard
Tenacity in learning to read
Cross-generational learning as the great granddaughter spends some quiet time talking to her great grandfather
Racism as felt by the family who have rocks thrown at them and are called names
Joy in new experiences as the grandfather tells about his first time trying a banana (he tried to eat it with the skin on)
The value of work as the family take on whatever they can find
The value of an education as the great grandfather’s mother fights for him to go to school
and the value of books and old things and stories.
I do love the illustrations; they’re detailed and homey and the faces are expressive and poignant.
Especially the first page which shows a panorama of the great-grandfather's room where he houses all manner of treasures.
This is a book to read to a child who is a bit lost for something to do or think about, or to a child who is feeling lost and unsettled in life.
That can take some work to identify because it often evidences in the same cranky behaviour that can be the result of so many other things. But I think times of change, such as moving schools or homes, or times of stress within the family – death, sickness, financial pressure etc – would be good candidates. I wouldn’t wait for those times to arise though, this is just a lovely story for anytime.