Emigration is something I know about: the fused mélange of anticipation and fear, the fatigue of a new language, the new sights and sounds bombarding all the senses, the bureaucracy and paper work, the unknown. While set a century ago, this story still speaks powerfully to me of these experiences and it carries a universal message for all who have left their own cultures and for those welcoming foreigners into their own nations.
Written by Amy Hest, illustrated by P. J. Lynch
Publishers: Candlewick Press, 2003
Themes: Emigration, immigration, Jews, New York, skills, grandmother, orphan
Awards: American Booksellers Book of the Year Honor Award, Christopher Award, Kate Greenaway Medal, Parent’s Choice Gold Award.
Opening/Synopsis: “Once in a poor village far from here, there was a very small house with a slanting roof. Inside were two chairs, two narrow beds, and a table with a fine lace cloth.”
Jessie is an orphaned Jewish girl being raised by her loving grandmother in a very poor Jewish village in Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. Despite being a girl, the grandmother insists that Jessie go to school with the rabbi. Jessie passes on her reading and writing skills to her grandmother, who, in turn, teaches Jessie to sew lace. From amongst all the villagers, Jessie is the one chosen by the rabbi to use the boat ticket sent from the US, to join the rabbi’s widowed sister-in-law in New York. Jessie very reluctantly leaves her beloved grandmother and the detremined story follows Jessie on: her transatlantic journey, her arrival at Ellis Island, her experiences as a new immigrant, her growing skill as a New York lacemaker, the people she meets and the pennies she saves every week for a special reason. The ending had me in tears!
Why I like this book: This book creates some beautiful historical fiction for the young reader evoking some of the experiences a young Jewish immigrant would have had on arriving leaving hr homeland and loved one and arriving in New York in the early 1900’s. There is a double page of stunning illustration, for example of Lower East side in this era. Jessie’s letters to her grandmother relay many details.
I miss you. cousin Kay takes me all around the city. I wish you could see the pushcarts and shops and trolleys speeding by. But there are too many people in America, and the streets are not gold. There are no cows. Cousin Kay bought me a pickle from a barrel. Tomorrow I begin to sew for her.
The illustrations capture with great authenticity contrasting scenes of Eastern European village life, a treacherous transatlantic journey, and the burgeoning metropolis and beacon for so many immigrants, of New York City. This would make a great book for any immigration module in the classroom.
It is also a tender story of relationships between family and non-family members and the ending is courageous and warming. The emotions and challenges of any form of immigration (which I and many of my readers will know) are sensitively touched on in this children’s story.
Resources and Activities:
Thanks to Helga Pearson for pointing me to this terrific video about P. J. Lynch’s genius work with watercolour and oil paint: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-d_9KkSKIzo . He also has a passion for life drawing which you can read about on his blog.
To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books. Or click on the Perfect Picture Book Fridays badge in the right sidebar.
This is also part of the 2012 Award Winning Books Reading Challenge over at Gathering Books.