The Matchbox Diary

Written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Published by Walker Books

The story of an amazing life, all in one tiny box....

About this book

The Matchbox Diary addresses important (and potentially complex) ideas such as migration, literacy and legacy, but does so in a warm-hearted and connected way that appeals to children and which they will understand.

Luminous coloured spreads together with sepia 'flashbacks' and a pared-down text invite readers to eavesdrop on the first meeting between an old man and his great-granddaughter. “Pick whatever you like the most,” says the old man. “Then I’ll tell you its story.” The girl isn’t sure what to choose, but the old man reassures her. She’ll know it when she spots it, he says, adding that her choice will help him know her, too.

Waiting for Grandfather to open the box                     copyright Bagram Ibatoulline for Walker Books

So the girl picks a battered cigar-box. It’s full of matchboxes, each containing something tiny - an olive stone, a ticket stub, a bottle top…Every item was collected by the old man as a way of marking his experiences, first in Italy and then America, and every matchbox opens the door to memories of a childhood begun in poverty, a long and frightening journey and a new start in a place that had little to offer but hard work and anxiety, but one that led to a better future.

The Matchbox Diary is an Italian immigrant's account, a hymn to literacy, an enticement to collectors and a celebration of the box - Paul Fleischman

The Diary is a story of family ties, of intellectual curiosity and openness. Every page of this unsentimental picturebook is suffused with warmth and a clear-sighted optimism that will be welcomed in these uncertain times. 

Helping children develop empathy is always important, and picturebooks have a unique role to play in this. With their ability to draw readers into complex emotional territories and allow them to walk for a while in someone else’s shoes, they're immensely accessible and immediate, but remain under a child's control in a way that film cannot. With big ideas such as the ones explored in this book, though, it's important to choose titles that aren’t simply campaign vehicles for a particular concept or viewpoint. As an absorbing read that will be enjoyed for its narrative energy and artwork by children who are unaware that it’s also a powerful advocate for tolerance and compassion, The Matchbox Diary is an important as well as an enjoyable book and makes a great starting point for creative exploration.

Sharing this book with your children

If you'd like to prepare children before reading, put some tiny objects in matchboxes and invite children to investigate. Who could the boxes belong to, and why did they decide to keep these objects? What do your children keep, and why? Has anyone ever brought a holiday souvenir home? What did they bring? Why did they choose that object? What do they think about when they see or play with it?

Grandfather's matchboxes       copyright Bagram Ibatoulline for Walker Books

Enjoy The Matchbox Diary as part of a shared reading-for-pleasure experience, letting the story work its magic before discussing it. What did your children like best about this book? Did it remind them of anything? What did they learn about the old man by reading it? Who would they recommend this book to, and why?

What next? Activities...

Many people have objects they particularly value. Talk about the objects placed inside the boxes in this book. What events and memories do they represent? Are they worth money? What are they worth?

Think about the objects you value, and choose one. Describe it to a partner and invite them to question you.
Why is it special? What does it do? Where do you keep it? How would you feel if you lost it?

If you had to leave home and could only take one object, what would it be? Why did the boy in this story take an olive stone?

Collect tiny objects and explore them. What could they represent? Generate ideas, before choosing an object and writing about it, both factually (what it looks and feels like) and fictionally (who it belonged to, why they kept it). 

“My father kept his tailor-father's heavy shears close by his desk…”

To read Paul Fleischman's observations about the way we live on through our objects click here 

If you can't read or write, how do you remember the important moments of your life? - Publishers Weekly
Invite an older visitor to share their memories of childhood. Children can interview your visitor and compile a report, or record and transcribe the discussion before rewriting in their own words.  

In the Diary, every sepia drawing has its story and Ibatoulline provides lots of cues and clues. Pair children with an older visitor or relative and ask them to choose a picture, then work together to invent and tell its story. 

The olive stone           copyright Bagram Ibatoulline for Walker Books


As well as writing picturebooks and novels, Fleischman writes poetry for several speakers (which he describes as chamber music for voices) and playscripts. So it’s not surprising to find him writing a text entirely in dialogue - but such a text is unusual in a picturebook and it’s worth exploring.

Told entirely in dialogue...             image copyright Bagram Ibatoulline for Waker Books

What do your children think about this text? Use a traditionally-constructed text (such as When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest and P.J. Lynch) to help you work out what’s missing in the Diary.

What do the Diary’s illustrations provide that the text doesn’t? Would the book be as effective without its pictures?  Talk about films, television dramas and plays that rely on visual storytelling as well as dialogue, and read the Diary’s dialogue aloud in pairs. 

Collect old photographs showing people doing something, rather than posing for a portrait. Interrogate by writing questions on post-its. Collate and discuss. 

  • Who could these people be? 
  • Why are they here? 
  • What are they thinking and feeling, and why?
  • If you could step into the picture, what would you hear, smell and taste?
  • Does anything surprise you?
  • What happened before this photograph was taken? What will happen next? 
  • What do these characters want? What’s stopping them achieving this?

Choose your favourite photograph. Using your responses, generate a mini-narrative and write it in traditional form, like the Jessie text. Once you’ve edited your narratives, rewrite them as dialogues, like the Diary text. 

In pairs, perform your dialogues against a backdrop of your photograph - a projection, perhaps?


Ibatoulline’s finely-detailed and expressive illustrations were painted using acrylic gouache. Framed sepia images and vignettes depict the boy’s memories, while the modern scenes are painted border-free in warmer shades of brown and amber.

"Ibatoulline can create images that are so realistic, they could be mistaken for photographs"  The Wall Street Journal

Is it true that you could mistake Ibatoulline’s paintings for photos? What tells you the Diary’s illustrations aren’t photographs? Is it good for art to be mistaken for real life? What can art do that photos can’t?

Look at the work of other illustrators working in a realistic style (for example, Kim Lewis and Christian Birmingham) and compare with those using different approaches (such as Oliver Jeffers and Mini Grey…)

Draw an object from life, making it look as lifelike as possible. Inspired by the stylized and less-realistic illustrations you’ve seen, draw the same object using a variety of techniques and media. Thinking about art and realism, what’s the effect of each approach? 

Remember - there are no right answers and you don’t have to be an expert to take part! By observing, reflecting, questioning and researching, children develop their aesthetic awareness and are better able to form and express opinions. 

Words have always been my world… Paul Fleischman

Fleischman’s family owned a hand printing press and typesetting was a familiar task. In the Diary, the old man’s childhood illiteracy and subsequent life choices form part of what Fleischman refers to as a “hymn to literacy” throughout the book. 

The typesetting workshop      copyright Bagram Ibatoulline for Walker Books


Use the illustration of the typesetting workshop to play step into the picture. Interrogate it for everything it can tell you about setting, characters and possible events. Use your observations to kickstart research into the history of printing. Set some type using an old-fashioned printing kit, and print a handbill for a school event or similar.

Explore computer fonts, using them to print your favourite poems. You could even collect font names and create a sound-poem that plays with them! 

Research early migration to America. What does the Diary tell us about the lives and experiences of such migrants?

Find out about migration today. Carefully-selected factual reports alongside fictional resources will help generate a balanced, informed and age-appropriate discussion. Try The Week Junior for factual reporting and Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland, The Silence Seeker by Ben Morley, Give Me Shelter edited by Tony Bradman and The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce for fictionalised accounts.

The journey from Italy        copyright Bagram Ibatoulline for Walker Books

Fleischman makes tiny working ‘matchbox theatres’ using cranks and other engineering to animate his scenes. For inspiration and instructions, watch his video:

Creating an object-based diary using matchboxes will appeal to children and give you plenty of opportunities for talking and writing. Use reclaimed matchboxes or decorate the plain white variety sold by craft outlets. Fleischman’s inspiration came from the map-covered diaries of artist Gary Hamel - there's a photo of his work on Paul Fleischman's website here and you can find out more via the author's notes downloadable from Candlewick Press here  Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations also make a great starting point. Why not make a collaborative diary of a visit, or create a record of an entire term or season? Alternatively, collect tiny objects of significance for individual diaries. Write about what you did, creating instructions for others to follow or catalogues with illustrations and descriptions of the objects 

If you liked this, try...

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith, published by Two Hoots

The Arrival by Shaun Tan, published by Hodder

When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest and P.J. Lynch, published by Walker Books

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and P.J. Lynch, published by Walker Books

My Grandma and Me by Mina Javaherbin and Lyndsey Yankey, published by Walker Books

Weslandia by Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes, published by Walker Books

The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) provides KS2 literacy resources for The Matchbox Diary. To read them click here

For Paul Fleischman's website clickhere

For a video by Paul Fleischman about making Matchbox Theatres
 see the Activities section above  

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