“Pick whatever you like the most. Then I’ll tell you its story.”

These simple words from an elderly man to his great-granddaughter at their first meeting set the scene for a remarkable story of poverty, immigration and the power of stories in whatever form they come.

Synopsis/Review:

In response to the quote at the top of this review, a Kindergarten-aged girl brings her great-grandfather an old cigar box, filled with dozens of little matchboxes. Explaining that this box constitutes his ‘diary’, since he could not always read and write, he begins to use the things he has collected in the boxes to tell his extraordinary story of how he came from famine in First World War era Italy, through poverty growing up in America during the depression years, to finally pursuing and succeeding in his passion. Each part of his journey is represented by an object, so that as the story progresses we learn more and more about his family’s experiences of being uprooted by circumstances outside of their control, travelling across the sea full of trepidation about what might be ahead, and having to adapt to a new land where they were poor and unwanted.

The very fact of this book’s inclusion here indicates that I like it a lot. After all, I want this blog to be of general help to others but also to reflect my own opinions and perspectives. If enough people do that then we’ll have a lot of fantastic resources to draw on! So yes, I love every book I recommend…but this is right up there as one of my favourites. Despite several re-reads I am still gripped by the incredible illustrations of Bagram Ibatoulline. I especially appreciate the contrast between a small illustration of a single object on every double-page, and the magnificent full-page drawings illustrating the man’s life. It is in some ways a rather understated book. It is the small-scale, individual story of an old man speaking to his great-granddaughter. But as you dig in you realise it is also a gripping and highly relevant commentary on the plight of millions of people around the world today. It does something which, it could be argued, is done far too infrequently by the media – it gives the ‘issue’ of immigration a human face. I’ve vowed to keep my own political opinions off my blog/twitter (though I’m sure things slip through the net occasionally!), but whatever your opinion of the political debates surrounding refugees/immigration, it is crucial that children learn to develop an understanding of, and empathy with, the difficult situations their fellow human beings are suffering through. This book does that perfectly. The whole text consists of a conversation with none of these blocks of speech attributed to either of the two characters which makes for a lovely organic-sounding story.

Recommended Age: Read at face value, I see no issue with using this at Lower Key Stage 2, although to get the full power of the book I would be looking at Upper Key Stage 2.

Themes/Topics:

  • Immigration
  • Journeys
  • Travel
  • Family
  • Bullying
  • Kindness
  • Family History
  • Refugees
  • Empathy
  • Poverty
  • Cities
  • Sport
  • Other Cultures
  • Transport
  • Jobs
  • Work
  • Artefacts
  • Evidence

Activities

  • Hot-seating – interviewing the boy at different stages of his journey (literal and metaphorical!)
  • Create a timeline of the protagonist’s life – could use this as structure for writing
  • Use written diary to create representational one, or vice versa
  • Diary writing generally
  • Newspaper writing, either about this story or just using the fact that there are newspaper cuttings in the book
  • Use illustrations as stimuli for creative writing
  • PE: represent phases of journey using movements
  • Geography: Find out what other countries are represented in your class – compare cultures (sport, music, language, food etc.). Alternatively pick a country relevant to your school/class
  • History: Lots about using evidence/artefacts!
    • Create a ‘matchbox diary’ of a well-known character – can children guess the character based on the objects?
    • Create a ‘matchbox diary’ of your own (don’t tell children it’s yours!) – what can they establish about the person whose box it is? (Did this when studying Greeks and it worked really well!)
    • Children create their own matchbox diary to tell their story
  • History: Lots of study possibilities into the plight of historical immigrants/refugees, including impact of wars on populations
  • PSHE: Plenty of empathy with boy in new and scary place
  • RE: Social Justice links
  • RE: Look at some special objects in different religions (AT1), think about what is special to pupils (AT2) using matchbox template
  • Maths: Distances/conversion
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