Perfect Picture Book Friday – When Jessie Came Across the Sea

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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.

When Jessie Came Across the Sea 

Written by Amy Hest, illustrated by P. J. Lynch

Publishers: Candlewick Press, 2003

Ages: 5-9

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.

Dear Grandmother,

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.

Love, Jessie

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:

A five week lesson plan for grade 3

A diary writing activity

A family tree/genealogy activity

Extensive set of lesson plans on immigration

Thanks to Helga Pearson for pointing me to this terrific video about P. J. Lynch’s genius work with watercolour and oil paint: . 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.

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32 Responses to Perfect Picture Book Friday – When Jessie Came Across the Sea

  1. That sounds lovely and the girl even looks nervous as you are when setting off into the unknown. What a great book.

    • Joanna says:

      Yes, this illustration captures so well the nervousness and anxiety about leaving for the unknown! This was not her choice, yet she and her grandmother trust the rabbi and know such an opportunity cannot be refused!

  2. I so enjoy seeing the words “historical fiction” with a picture book. I’m adding this to my library list now. Thanks for another great selection. I found an older picture book set in New York and Enzo loved the illustrations. We’ll see if he likes this one too.

  3. Erik This Kid Reivews Books says:

    I really like books like this. I like to learn about history. The letters are a cool way to tell part of the story!

  4. Oh Joanna, what a beautiful addition to both PPBF and the AWB Reading Challenge. Our May/June theme would explore the immigrant experience (as we also joined an Immigrant Stories Reading Challenge), and I just feel that this would be a perfect book to feature. Thank you for introducing me to this lovely book. 🙂 I love books with an epistolary theme 😉 satisfies the voyeur in me, I suppose.

  5. Cathy Mealey says:

    Joanna – Remember when I was looking for middle grade historical fiction recommendations yesterday? This speaks to me so much more vividly! I think I am too drawn to PB to venture into MG with historical fiction. A tough challenge for me re: word count and vocabulary. But this book is spot-on with what I needed! Thank you!

    • Joanna says:

      Cathy, I am so glad this speaks to you. I would actually consider using this in a classroom with children as old as 11 or 12 myself.

  6. Oh wow! PJ Lynch is one of my illustration heroes! A talented Irish illustrator, he is a genius with watercolour and oil paint. Watch this fabulous little video, to get a glimpse into his work . He also has a passion for life drawing if you’re interested, you can read his blog Thanks Joanna, ADORE his work!

  7. The cover illustration is beautiful and the story sounds beautiful as well. Thanks for the great review.

    • Joanna says:

      Penny, this is a wonderful text and illustration combination, the editor knew just the right artist to choose for this subject!

  8. Oh, I really like this story Joanna! Such a wonderful story about a young girl’s immigration to America. I’m glad I didn’t get to your review until after Helga responded, because I watched the video about the illustrator, Lynch. WOW! I enjoyed watching his process. I hope you review the Bee Man book. Sounds beautiful. Great selection and great review.

  9. Amy Dixon says:

    What a great addition to the list. My grandmother came over through Ellis Island from Italy and I would love to get this book to help my kids understand more about her experience. Thank you!

    • Joanna says:

      Amy, you and your family are in many ways THE target audience for such a book. I really think it will be very meaningful to you.

  10. What an intriguing sounding book. Even those of us who don’t have direct experience with moving to another country often have forebears who did (especially those of us who live here in North America) — it sounds like an excellent resource for making a study module come to life.

    Thank you!

  11. This book sounds lovely, and from your description I’m guessing would have me in tears by the end too 🙂 I love historical fiction, and it’s great that it’s available here for younger readers. Wonderful to have all the details, and the art looks gorgeous. I’m sure this book would speak to a lot of kids on a lot of levels – even if you’ve never moved countries, everyone understands what it’s like to feel new. Thanks for another great addition to our list, Joanna!

  12. What an amazing book. I can’t wait for the boys to be a little bit older so we can read this kind of historical fiction. In the meantime, I’ll have to get this one from the library just for myself. Today’s library haul was more than 20 books, many recommended by you and the others on PPBF.

  13. Joanna…thank you for such a wonderful selection for PPBF! The book sounds amazing…I know this is one I need to get…I’ll see if the local library has a copy…if not, I will tell them they need to get one. 🙂
    GREAT resources!!!!!!!

  14. Oh wow! This book sounds amazing. And the illustrations look beautiful – at least what I can see from the cover. I need to find this and read it. So glad you shared.

  15. This book sounds really interesting. And, I tend to love all books from Candlewick, so thank you for sharing.

  16. Barb Leyne says:

    It sounds like a beautiful story! I think it’s so important to read stories like this to young children. I think it helps to create a greater appreciation for all the wonderful things in their lives that they may take for granted.

    Grade ONEderful

  17. Beautiful story Joanna. Sounds very moving and I know I will love it. Must look out for it. Love the multicultural influence and the strength Jessie has. Just trying to imagine what it was like back then is ingredible. Thanks for sharing Joanna.

  18. Historical fiction picture books! Love, love, love it! 🙂 What an awesome book. Adding it to my ever growing list. *waving*

  19. Pingback: Water Journey and Finding Home: When Jessie Came Across the Sea «

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