summertime book of the week…a most unusual diary

the matchbox diary cover imageThe Matchbox Diary, by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

A room  full of curiosities.
A beautiful great-grandfather.
A mysterious collection of quaint, old matchboxes, each with one peculiar object stashed inside.

From the get-go, this story entices us with the mystique of hidden treasures, the matchbox diary illustration detail bagram ibatoullinethe aroma of musty books and leather trunks, the captivating images of far-off places.

A young girl is meeting her great-grandfather for the first time. He’s a handsome man with a well-lined face and a lifetime of stories that he’s happy to share with her. Together, they open a worn, wooden cigar box filled with decorative matchboxes, which, he tells her, comprise his diary.

A diary of matchboxes?

the matchbox diary illustration2 bagram ibatoullineFor a young boy who could not read or write, it was an extraordinarily clever method of preserving memories. Inside each one, a small object reminds him of an incident, and as they slide open the matchboxes and discover the trinkets, he tells his great-granddaughter the stories of his life.

Born in Italy, into a life of poverty and without the possibility of going to school. A long trip over land and sea to America. Grueling work as an immigrant family to make ends meet. Always the yearning to become literate.

This is the life great-grandfather sketches out with sensory detail and poignant emotion as he fingers tiny bits of his life — an olive pit, a pen nib, sunflower seeds, a tooth. Fifteen matchboxes are opened and explained while the stories are unreeled.

It’s a touching, compelling book, a hopeful glimpse of intergenerational bonds, a salute to the prize of literacy, and a lovely historical account of the lives of immigrants arriving in the U.S. at the turn of the century. Fleischman is a superb writer and this book is beautifully crafted. In his author blurb, he tells of the intriguing way he got the idea for this story.

Bagram Ibatoulline’s accompanying artwork is simply stunning. Wow! Such gorgeous work! His illustrations are in the matchbox diary illustration bagram ibatoullineacrylic gouache. The scenes involving the great-granddaughter are in warm, full color, the glow of sunlight illuminating a roomful of gleaming wood and brass, each matchbox lid beguiling with its intricate design. The scenes of great-grandfather’s life are in exquisite sepia tones. Such beautiful humanity, detail, and sense of time and place — you really feel you are looking at reproductions of historic photographs.

One of my favorite new books this year, I highly recommend this for ages 5 and up. Great book to share between grandparents and grandchildren, which will hopefully spark your own conversations and storytelling.

Here’s the Amazon link:
The Matchbox Diary