The 2017 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature is Gene Lune Yang. A requirement for each ambassador is to have a platform, and Yang’s is “Reading Without Walls”. Yang challenges readers to:
- Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
- Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
- Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun.
With these criteria in mind, I’ve decided to post roundups once a month on the theme of diversity. I’m starting with picture books about the immigration experience.
In The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, a grandfather invites his granddaughter to pick an item from his library for him and he’ll tell its story. She picks a matchbox diary. The rest of Fleischman’s picture book reveals the assorted items inside the matchbook diary and their significance. For example, an olive pit reminds the grandfather of Italy, where life was hard, and he’d suck on an olive pit to help with his hunger. The photo is of his father, who like many Italians moved to America to earn money to send back to their poverty-stricken families back home. A hairpin served as a reminder of the dreams his family had. They believed America had streets of gold, and that the mother would soon wear big hats like the other wealthy women. My least favorite part of The Matchbox Diary is the style. I often couldn’t tell who the speaker was. In addition, in writing the story as a dialogue exchange, Fleischman sometimes left out transitions that would have made the context clear. My favorite part of The Matchbox Diary are the detailed illustrations. The watercolor paintings look like old photographs. You can read more about the inspiration behind The Matchbox Diary here.
When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest tells of Jessie and her grandmother, who live in a poor unnamed village in Eastern Europe. One day the rabbi, who teaches the community’s young people to read, shares the news that his brother has died and left him a ticket to America. The rabbi doesn’t feel that he can leave his people, and so he gives the ticket to Jessie. He tells her she can live with the rabbi’s brother’s widow in New York. On the ship that takes Jessie to America, immigrants swapped stories of their dreams of America, with its streets of gold and land of plenty. Upon arriving in America, Jessie discovered that instead there were too many people and too much traffic. But she also learned to read, made a living sewing beautiful garments, and found a beau. When Jessie Came Across the Sea is a sweet story about love and bravery, both it and The Matchbox Diary lack the nuances more often found in books written by those with personal immigrant experience. Similar to The Matchbox Diary, my favorite part of When Jessie Came Across the Sea are the panoramic watercolor paintings.
The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.–Grandfather’s Journey
In Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say, the narrator described the conflict one feels by being from two countries. The story started out being about his grandfather, who left his home in Japan to see the world. He explored North America by train, riverboat, and foot. Deserts amazed him, and endless farm fields reminded him of the ocean he had crossed. Factories and skyscrapers bewildered and excited him. He marveled at mountains and rivers. For a long time, the grandfather longed to see new places, but then eventually he wished to see his homeland again. He settled back in Japan with his wife and they had a daughter. She gave birth to a son, the narrator of the story. The grandfather always told him tales of California, and one day the narrator visited California for himself. Grandfather’s Journey is a poignant story with lavish illustrations. I related to the grandfather’s sense of adventure, and to the narrator’s longing for his two homes.
Hannah is My Name by Belle Yang is about a Chinese family who emigrate to the United States and try to assimilate while waiting for the arrival of their green cards. The family wants to become Americans more than anything in the world. Why? Because in America one is free. Yet becoming American isn’t easy if one is born elsewhere. The first thing they needed to do was find an economical place to live. The next thing they needed to do was file papers and hope that the government accepted their applications. Without those papers, the family can’t work. But without work, they can’t pay bills. Naturally then, the parents get jobs. While they live in fear of capture, Hannah learns English in school. My own immigration experience as a Canadian was much easier, and sometimes I even forget that I too was a foreigner. Yet I faced enough hurdles with paperwork, and anxiety over whether my visa would get renewed, that I can sympathize with the struggles of the family.
Yang concludes his “Reading Without Walls” challenge by encouraging readers to take a photo of themselves and their books and post to social media. In doing so, he says, readers will inspire others. Will you join me over the next year in reading books that take you outside your comfort zone?