I've been a fan of Paul Fleischman's work for years, and his recent release does not disappoint.
|Candlewick, March, 2013|
I'll admit I was predisposed to like THE MATCHBOX DIARY, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, before ever reading it. Back in the sixties (the decade, not my age) I was attempting to personalize the decor of a furnished sublet apartment on a limited budget.
Okay, on NO budget.
What I did have in my possession was a stack of advertising notecards which were miniaturized versions of Pan Am travel posters. (For the younger crowd, Pan Am was the classy world-wide airline of the time.) I gathered some loose change and bought a couple of "boxes of boxes" of matches. Friends who were known to bar-hop on weekends provided me with a stack of absorbent cardboard coasters. Thus equipped, I set about using the notecards to wrap four dozen matchboxes with images of world-class destinations, taking care to keep the sandpaper striking side untouched by glue. I then applied those images to the flip side of each coaster. (It was the sixties- think MadMen. It was assumed that guests would smoke and drink.)
To my mind a brandy snifter of international matchboxes next to a stack of poster/coasters was a first step in transforming a co-ed who didn't drink, smoke, or travel beyond the midwest into a more interesting character.
The very suggestion that an illiterate Italian immigrant would salvage empty matchboxes to document his challenging but admirable life had me falling in love with this book before I even opened the cover. Once I did, things only got better. Then I read Fleischman's description of his lifelong love affair with boxes and watched his Matchbox Theater Video. I was a goner.
When it comes to Fleischman's other titles, I find myself surprisingly ready to state my favorite, which I'm so often reluctant to do for any given author's or illustrator's work. When asked about favorites I find my mind instantly snaps to qualifiers: For what readers? For what purpose? In which format? This should certainly be the case for him, as you can see here from the vast array of outstanding titles he has produced. The fact that this hasn't happened with Fleischman's work means that one of his books transcends my general high standards as "one of my favorites for ___" to stand alone as my unqualified favorite. Full Stop.
In this story Wes launches his summer vacation in his own backyard, equipped only with what he has learned in school, that the core of every enduring civilization is a staple food crop. That knowledge in the hands of a boy with insatiable curiosity and ingenious creativity needed only a summery night breeze to deposit a few seeds of unknown origin. An entire civilization takes root in his yard, extending its reach into the hearts and minds of his bullying classmates and clueless parents.
Fleischman and Hawkes again paired their talents for the fantastic SIDEWALK CIRCUS, with impressive and appealing results, yet WESLANDIA still had a lock on my heart.
Now I must fall back on qualifiers and hedging of one kind or another, because THE MATCHBOX DIARY has latched on to another piece of my heart. In WESLANDIA the exuberance and vibrant abstractions in the images fully reflect Wes's blend of nerdy schoolboy with super-hero resilience and brilliance.
THE MATCHBOX DIARY's muted tones, crumpled artifacts, and historic specificity reflect the fragile but durable experiences of great-grandfather's life, preserved in matchboxes collected over many decades. The fact that these two titles are so different in image, content, character and genre protect my heart from being severed like the baby in Solomon's court. Instead they lend themselves beautifully to different purposes and audiences, reflecting the remarkably versatile talent of their author.
Each stands on its own solid ground as fine literature and art. Each has unforgettable characters, setting, and plot. Each transcends target ages, offering something for everyone without diluting quality or story. And each is densely layered, offering potential for discussion, for curricular connections, and for links to personal experience.
If Paul Fleischman's titles are not already on your shelves, add these two today, then explore the rich array of others he has to offer.