Gittel's Journey

Gittel’s Journey — and thus, Gittel’s journey — feels vast. The trim size is on the generous side, with a dust jacket that shows our young protagonist against a backdrop of ocean and the faraway Statue of Liberty and, on the back, shows her amidst a large crowd of people disembarking from the ship. (In her red scarf, she stands out from the crowd.) Open the book, and the first thing you’ll see are the endpapers showing, in silhouette, the entire span of Gittel's journey from the “Old Country,” as it is called in the author’s note, to the new one. Remove the dust jacket to see a ship so big that a partial view of it wraps around from the back cover, where Gittel’s mother is frantically waving from the dock, to the front, where Gittel is reaching out to her mother from way, way up on the top deck — foreshadowing the fact that, though the plan had been for Mama and Gittel to travel together, Gittel will actually have to make the journey alone. 

That feeling of vastness continues on the inside, as illustrator Amy June Bates makes smart use of borders to divide the space. Often, those borders simply mark off the text and the illustrations, giving the former an air of officialness and the latter a sense of looking back at what author Lesléa Newman explains is a combination of two family stories. In a few places, the borders play an important role in the illustrations. When, in the Old Country, Gittel and Mama set off toward the seacoast and the ship that will take them to America, the long, narrow sections created by the horizontal borders convey the length of the row at the top of the spread, and then, below the text, the length of the line for approval to board the ship. Later, after Gittel has been granted that approval and Mama hasn’t (due to an eye infection), vertical borders on either side of the text play a role similar to that of another kind of border: they physically separate Mama back home on the edge of the verso, holding a pair of unlit Shabbos candles, from Gittel in her berth on the recto, clutching her beloved but empty candlesticks. The varied, ornate designs of the borders themselves often evoke those candlesticks or even show flames in the corners, among other design elements; at times when Gittel is aboard the ship, the borders look like ocean waves. And all of the borders form closed boxes, with one exception: when Gittel and Mama are finally reunited, the border surrounding the text is open at the bottom, with an image below showing the candles and candlesticks reunited as well.

The watercolor paintings are thoughtfully planned. Check out the luminous candlelight on the second spread, reflected in the faces of Gittel and Mama; the fading backgrounds in many of the images; the recognizable arch of patterned windows at Ellis Island; and the few items Gittel carries with her — her doll, her yellow sack, the scarf, and of course the candlesticks. These last items are traceable throughout the story —as is the all-important scrap of paper with Mama’s cousin Mendel’s address in America (though it’s not visible quite as often as the other items). 

So yes, Gittel's Journey has a sense of vastness; a child's voyage alone across an ocean is a big story. But don't just look at the big picture; in this story, small things matter.

Shoshana Flax
Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor of The Horn Book Magazine, is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons University. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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MAUREEN SCHLOSSER

I loved this book! If readers are looking for a lesson for this book, I have some ideas to share: https://librarylessonswithbooks.com/gittels-journey-an-ellis-island-story-by-lesle-newman/ schlossercontentwriter@gmail.com

Posted : Oct 04, 2019 09:53


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