The Matchbox Diary. 2013. Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 40 pp.

Genre: Narrative fiction, picture book

Ages: Grades 2-6

Features: Magnificently detailed illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, alternating between soft, rich color and sepia-toned moments, framed like old photos, as the story jumps from the present to the past.    


Award winning author Paul Fleischman has written so many of  my favorite books to share with students–Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, Seedfolks, Whirligig, Bull Run, Weslandia, and many more. As I sit at my desk writing this, all I have to do is look around the room to understand why his latest book, The Matchbox Diary called to me the first time I saw it. On my shelves, I’ve got old cigar boxes (wood and cardboard), handmade wooden boxes with ornate metal latches, and sturdy stationery boxes. Each one of these boxes holds items other than their original contents—I’ve lifted the lid on a cardboard box with a magnetic lid closure to peek inside. The box once held cards, blank on the inside with photographs of rural Italy on the outside. Now, its contents rattle and clink—metal campaign buttons, foreign coins, keys on a souvenir keychain from Yellowstone Park. Simply touching the treasures sends my mind time traveling back to places and moments, and the stories each holds. This idea, that the things we hold on to are keepers of our life’s stories, is at the heart of this beautiful book, told solely through dialogue—the conversation of a young girl and her great-grandfather meeting for the first time.

The book begins with the girl and her great-grandfather in a warm, amber-toned room busy with bookshelves, tables, and display cases. And each one of these is filled with books, boxes of all sizes, clocks, and antiques. The opening line is an invitation to the girl (and to readers) to “Pick whatever you like the most,” and he will tell its story. The illustration begs readers to pour over the room and search for the item each likes best. I reached for a magnifying glass (used by my grandfather when he worked with his stamp collection) so I could get a closer view of what the room had to offer. Unlike the girl, I couldn’t make up my mind. She chooses wisely, a cigar box packed neatly with row upon row of matchboxes. The close-up drawing of the box filled with boxes is my favorite. Readers can’t help but linger, looking closely at the logos, designs, and brand names on the matchboxes. (As a younger person, I used to collect matchboxes or matchbooks from restaurants or store giving them away as promotional items.) When the girl asks about what’s in each of the little boxes, great-grandpa replies “My diary.”

As she selects boxes to open, great-grandfather tells her the story of his childhood through the smaller stories that are held by the items in each box. He explains to her that when he was a young boy about her age, he began keeping this diary of objects because he couldn’t read or write. The larger story that unfolds is that of an Italian immigrant family coming to America for a better life. The sepia toned illustrations accompanying the matchbox stories remind readers of looking through an old family photo album. One of the matchboxes holds a bottle cap, a common, everyday object to most readers. But, like the contents of every box, the cap has a story. It comes from Naples, where the storyteller’s family has to stay for three days waiting for their ship to America. So many “firsts” happen here: seeing his first car, discovering drinks that come in bottles, setting eyes on the ocean for the first time. The bottle cap is the gatekeeper to important personal and family memories, like each of the items in his matchbox diary.


In the Classroom

1. The Matchbox Diary, Part II—Coming Soon. Rather than our customary sharing of ways to use this book in your classroom, I’m going to do something different.  I’d like to encourage you to read this book yourself, either by purchasing it, borrowing, flipping through it in a bookstore.  My next post will take you through my experience—from beginning to end—of using this inspiring book with Mr. L’s classroom of real fifth grade students from an elementary school near where I live. I’ll take you through the process we used, and I’m hoping to be able to share some of their writing, as well. I’m heading back to Mr. L’s classroom today for my third visit this week. As a former full-time teacher, I can’t tell you how great it feels to be back in the saddle for even an hour a day as a guest teacher.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Vicki will be reviewing Amy Krause Rosenthal’s exciting new book, Exclamation Mark, about how a familiar punctuation mark discovers his purpose. I will also be sharing the process and results from using The Matchbox Diary with a classroom of fifth grade students. (I have been having such an amazing time!!) Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.