The evocative, time-saturated imagery that draws the reader into this story begins well before the first page of this book that celebrates immigration, Jewish resilience, hope, courage and new beginnings. From the artistic endpapers showing a steamship approaching the Statue of Liberty, to Lady Liberty regally bearing her torch in the book’s frontispiece, the reader senses that something special is about to occur before the story even unfolds.
Nine-year-old Gittel and her mother are preparing to set sail to New York from Europe, where life is difficult and dangerous for Jews. They can’t bring their loved ones or their dear goat but they can bring Basha, Gittel’s beloved doll, and the family’s traditional candlesticks.
When they arrive at the port, though, the health inspector takes one look at Mama’s red eye and says she won’t be allowed to board the ship. Gittel’s mother tells her she must make the journey alone because as frightening as it sounds, it’s safer than staying in Europe. The long voyage all alone is scary but Gittel is brave and does not lose hope. She clutches the paper with the name and address of her mother’s cousin in New York, terrified that she might lose it, and holds Basha close for comfort.
When the ship arrives at Ellis Island, the note Gittel has clutched so tightly has smeared to illegibility. Even the Yiddish translator can’t read it and doesn’t know where Gittel should go in the big, confusing city. He tries to cheer her up and a photographer takes an endearing photo that ends up in the Jewish newspaper. Mama’s cousin sees the photo, recognizes a family resemblance and comes to take Gittel home. Gittel’s mother eventually joins them in the New World.
This charming tale is based on author Lesléa Newman’s relative’s true story. The accompanying illustrations, woven throughout the prose, are painted in rich but subtle shades and show expressive faces and poses.
A detailed Author’s Note tells more about the time period and the family members who inspired the story. It also provides information about Ellis Island today. A glossary, bibliography, and list of websites for further learning about immigration and Ellis Island are appended, so that readers and parents can learn more about families like Gittel’s who made the life-changing trip to the United States. The warm and hopeful story, along with these educational enhancements, provide a perfect starting point for a discussion of immigration and its role in the development of the U.S.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.