Review: Straw Bag, Tin Box, Cloth Suitcase: Three Immigrant Voices

Straw Bag, Tin Box, Cloth Suitcase: Three Immigrant Voices

by Jane Yolen, Marjorie Lotfi and Raquel Elizabeth Artiga de Paz, illustrated by Fotini Tikkou

Reycraft Books, 2023

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Jeanette Brod

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As a nation of immigrants, our family histories have roots in other countries. The countries we leave are often fraught with peril for those who live there. At great personal risk, some people choose to emigrate and eventually arrive in America.

Straw Bag, Tin Box, Cloth Suitcase: Three Immigrant Voices is the story of three generations that undertake the immigrant journey from different continents. The stories are fictionalized accounts of the families of the storytellers. Each story is told by a woman who passes generational memory to a young girl who is the appointed keeper of the family legacy. An artifact from each place (a straw bag, a tin box, a cloth suitcase) sparks the storytelling and creates some of the parallelism that connects the stories.

Jane Yolen is the mastermind behind this trilogy. She abstracts her personal family history of escape from the Cossacks in the Ukraine in the early part of the twentieth century to take us farthest into the past. Marjorie Lotfi works with immigrant groups and here recounts the harrowing story of departing Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, 1978-1979. Raquel Elizabeth Artiga de Paz tells her story of fleeing gang violence in El Salvador in the 2010s and migrant farming in the United States. The stories share episodes of disorienting family upheaval and challenging resettlement. Though each story is a compelling reflection of its time and place, it is the similarities of experience that are most striking.

There is wisdom in these retellings. The vibrant, oversized picture book details its three sagas simultaneously. On each double page spread, the reader can choose to either read the contemporaneous adventures of each set of travelers or follow the story of one family from start to finish. The stories crisscross at the airport, one of the many sequences where family adventures overlap. The evocative, playful palette of Greek illustrator Fotini Tikkou helps tie the stories together. The luminous, detailed illustrations suggest a universality of experience and a specificity of place. The illustrated endpapers ingeniously map the travel routes of the families, collapsing time and suggesting yet another commonality in the immigrant experience.

Together these stories span one hundred years of the changing faces of immigration in America. However, the book’s focus on immigration leaves it short on Jewish content, which may render it ineligible for a Sydney Taylor Book Award. Jane Yolen’s story is the only Jewish story. Her story takes its Jewishness from the language of persecution as she deftly explains new vocabulary within context: shtetl, Cossacks, tsar, pogroms. With the heartbreaking, dangerous nature and inherent sadness of these tales, the book is most appropriate for an upper elementary audience or to begin a discussion at home about family history. Straw Bag, Tin Box, Cloth Suitcase: Three Immigrant Voices is a welcome, timely tribute to generations of immigrants who have peopled our shores.

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Reviewer Jeanette Brod is the Children’s and Teen Services Associate at the New Milford, Connecticut, Public Library. She also serves as Educational Consultant for Connecticut’s Voices of Hope HERO Center and speaks locally about her family’s Holocaust experiences. Jeanette is the former Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Sholom in New Milford and a past Vice-President of the Children’s Book Council in New York City. She holds a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. Jeanette and her husband, Sasha, are the proud parents of two grown children.