The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

The Matchbox Diary

The Matchbox Diary
Written by Paul Fleischman; Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Published by Candlewick Press, 2013
ISBN# 9780763646011

Grades K and up

Book Review
“Pick whatever you like most. Then I’ll tell you its story.” So begins a tale not just about the object that a young girl chooses from among her great-grandfather’s curio-filled home, but the story of their first meeting and the beginning of their developing family bond.  When the girl makes the unusual selection of an old cigar box full of individual matchboxes each with its own surprising contents, her great-grandfather reveals it’s a diary of sorts–one he constructed as a child to collect his memories since he could not read or write. In The Matchbox Diary, Newbery Award winning author Paul Fleischman does what he does best: captivate readers with touching tales of cross-generational relationships and the deep connections that form among them. Moreover, he does it by writing entirely in dialogue, providing much material for deep inference-making. Master children’s book illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline provides key details that are only alluded to in Fleischman’s text. Ibatoulline knows firsthand the immigrant experience, and his acrylic gouache illustrations convey that connection to the text with precise detail and expression. Present scenes are bathed in a rich warm palette and bleed across the page, while the great-grandfather’s memories are cast in sepia and framed to evoke an album-like composition. Readers of all ages will find much to captivate them in this heartwarming tale of family memories, strength, and closeness.
Teaching Invitations

Grades K and up

  • The Story of an Object. Take “Show and Tell” a step further, and have students bring in an object that has a story behind it to share with the class. You might want to have them practice telling the story ahead of time, reminding them to use good storytelling and personal narrative techniques as they share the story of the object (e.g., beginning-middle-end story structure, powerful conclusions.). Have them then write down the story and present it to friends and family members. For older students, a variation on this activity is to have them find inspiration from an object. Have them look around the room for any object that triggers a memory of a story. The exact object that inspires them doesn’t necessarily have to factor into the story, but serve as a source of inspiration.
  • Reader’s Theater. The fact that the text of the book contains only dialogue makes it ripe for reader’s theater activities. Additionally, Fleischman does not provide any text that are dialogue tags (i.e., “said,” “replied,””asked,” etc.) or indicate in any way how the dialogue is said, which makes determining what kind of sentence each is and how it should be read aloud a worthwhile exercise for students as they prepare their reader’s theater performance. Have your students practice reading the story aloud in small groups and then perform a reader’s theater version of it in different voices and with different intonation to hear all the ways it can be read aloud fluently.
  • Class Matchbox Diary. Give each student in your class a matchbox (or a similar small-sized box), and instruct them to put a small object in it that represents a special memory. You can decide whether you want that memory to be related to school, your class, or anything in their lives. Have each student share what the contents of his or her matchbox is with the rest of the class. Alternatively, students could write a special memory on a slip of paper and put the slip in the matchbox. Then, gather the matchboxes and keep them in a larger box, like the great-grandfather’s cigar box in the story, and keep it in the classroom for students to peruse or inspire other activities throughout the year.
  • Family Immigration Stories. Ask students to locate an immigration story within their families, whether it be their own or an extended relative’s. They might also need to go back a few generations to find someone who knows the story of an ancestor’s immigration. As a class, have students list the questions they would want to know about those immigration stories. Use those questions to create general questions that your students could ask to learn as many details about the story as possible. If family members aren’t available to ask, perhaps family friends or neighbors are. Students may want to record those interviews on smartphones or iPad2s. Have each student write a narrative based on the interview, and use either photographs or their own original creations as illustrations. A fun visual extension activity would be to mark where each immigration story originated on a large class map.
  • The Interplay of Text and Illustration. As a genre, picturebooks offer a unique opportunity to meld words and artwork to create meaning, with each medium enhancing the other so that both are necessary for readers to develop full understanding. Do a picture walk with students, having them carefully study each of Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations only to tell the story. Record their picture walk storytelling with an audio recorder, perhaps on a smartphone, computer, tablet, or digital recorder. Then, cover up the illustrations or retype the text and have them reread only the text of the story. Have students compare and contrast the details and understandings they gained through each mode and medium of storytelling. Then, invite students to write and illustrate their own picturebooks, stressing that picturebooks are much more than “illustrated books” meaning is not just connected through text and pictures, but enhanced and elaborated through the interplay.

Grades 3 and up

  • Oral Histories of Local Seniors. Have your students conduct oral histories with senior citizens in your community about their memories of specific historical periods or events. You may want to select a specific historical period to explore, and be sure to have your students read more widely about it before establishing general research questions and specific interview questions. Arrange for students to listen to and record the stories and oral histories of local senior citizens in a storytelling partnership throughout the year, either by inviting them to your classroom or by visiting them at a park, library, coffee shop, or retirement home.  hen, decide together the best way to share their research. They may want to co-author articles with the senior citizens whom they interview, to publish a class magazine that can be donated to the school and public library. Or, students might use this as an opportunity to introduce multimodal digital composition to senior citizens in your area, working together to photograph artifacts and mementos, locate old songs, and record some of their conversations, in order to create a multimodal portrait of their memories.
  • Intergenerational Storytelling with Older Relatives and Family Friends. A variation on the previous activity is to have students write letters to elderly relatives or family friends where the students pose questions and share things about themselves with seniors in their lives. As teachers, you can include a note that asks the receivers of the letters to please send a response to the school address. Family story timelines and family trees are other avenues for students to consider the stories that influenced their families over time. Have students create picture books of the stories, in which they transcribe and illustrate them, and give the picture books to their relatives and family friends as gifts.
  • Writing in Dialogue. It’s no easy feat to write a realistic, compelling story only through dialogue. Challenge your students to try writing a personal narrative or a realistic fiction story in this way. To help them, have them listen carefully to how people talk in various situations and locations (i.e., at restaurants, on the subway, at the mall, at the park, on the street) and then compare that speech with how dialogue is written (e.g., not quite real speech verbatim). Have them review the purpose and effects of different punctuation on the way words, phrases, and sentences sound. Remind students, too, that Fleischman didn’t use dialogue tags. Feel free to allow students to use them, though, as a scaffolding technique if this activity proves too challenging at first. See the websites listed below for other ideas to help student write in dialogue.
  • Paul Fleischman Author Study/Bagram Ibatoulline Illustrator Study. Both Fleischman and Ibatoulline have written and illustrated several books for children across the ages. Gather multiple copies of their books to conduct an author study and/or illustrator study. For the author study, ask your students to identify patterns in setting, theme, character, and plot across the books. Examine Paul Fleischman’s storytelling techniques in the books, as well as the topics and perspectives he writes about in his books. For the illustrator study, survey Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations, and identify his artistic style, his artistic idiosyncrasies, and favorite artistic media to use. Gather information about both of these men from their websites listed below, your local librarian, the Internet, and as other biographical sources.
Critical Literacy

  • Defining Literacy. The great-grandfather constructs a matchbox diary because he is unable to read or write. However, he is still able to look at a symbol (i.e., the object in each matchbox) and “read” its meaning. Does being literate really only mean creating meaning from the symbols known as alphabetic letters and characters? What about reading symbols or visual images that are logos or are in advertisements? What about reading wordless picturebooks? Most of all, who gets to define what literacy is or isn’t? The field of literacy has actually been pushing for quite some time against traditional definitions that are limited to reading and writing, but what do your students think? Pose these questions to them to push their thinking, and challenge them to find examples that either support or refute their initial responses.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Paul Fleischman’s website

Bagram Ibatoulline’s website

Library of Congress: Immigration Resources for Teachers

New York Public Library Immigration Images

Ada, A. F. (2002). I love Saturdays y domingos. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Arnosky, J. (2006). Grandfather Buffalo. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Bial, R. (2009). Ellis Island: Coming to the land of liberty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bial, R. (2002). Tenement: Immigrant life on the Lower East Side. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Cheng, A. (2000). Grandfather counts. New York: Lee & Low Books.

Freedman, R. (1980). Immigrant kids. New York: Scholastic.

Johnson, A. (1990). When I am old with you. Ill. by David Soman. New York: Orchard Books.

Polacco, P. (1998). The keeping quilt. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Say, A. (1993). Grandfather’s journey. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Tarbesca, E. (1998). Annushka’s voyage. Ill. by L. Dabcovich. New York: Clarion Books.

Velasquez, E. (2010). Grandma’s gift. New York: Walker.
Woodruff, E. (1999). The memory coat. Ill. by M. Dooling. New York: Scholastic.
Yaccarino, D. (2011). All the way to America: The story of a big Italian family and a little shovel. New York: Alfred Knopf. See our entry at

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.