Pic­ture Girl

Mar­lene Targ Brill; Michael Sayre, illus.

  • Review
By – July 1, 2019

Chil­dren’s and young adult books about the immi­grant expe­ri­ence on Ellis Island have pro­lif­er­at­ed in recent years. Many of the sto­ries, often close­ly based on actu­al expe­ri­ences, are filled with dra­ma and pas­sion. They teach impor­tant lessons about hope, per­se­ver­ance, ded­i­ca­tion to fam­i­ly, love of free­dom, and faith in the future. In this sto­ry, the young female pro­tag­o­nist is both coura­geous and artis­ti­cal­ly tal­ent­ed, and she uses her abil­i­ties to over­come dif­fi­cult odds — result­ing in a brighter future for her family.

Pic­ture Girl, part of a pub­lish­er’s series called Becom­ing Amer­i­can Kids, is a well-writ­ten nov­el for ele­men­tary school read­ers. It is cat­e­go­rized as his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, but is inspired by the life of Louise, or Luba, Dunn (née Dichne), whose artis­tic skill and opti­mistic spir­it helped cre­ate a path for her Ukrain­ian fam­i­ly to enter the US and suc­ceed. Illus­trat­ed with black and white draw­ings, the book encap­su­lates a chunk of Jew­ish his­to­ry between World War I and World War II. Sur­round­ed by the ter­rors of Cos­sack ram­pages, per­va­sive Com­mu­nist anti­semitism, and dead­ly bureau­cra­cy, the two par­ents, young Luba, and her four sib­lings under­take an escape via a stormy ocean voy­age to Amer­i­ca. They final­ly arrive at Ellis Island where a whole new set of chal­lenges arise; immi­gra­tion offi­cials did not allow fam­i­lies with sick chil­dren to enter and some of Luba’s sib­lings had arrived with the measles. In a sim­ple but mov­ing nar­ra­tive, the book brings read­ers the sto­ry of their Ellis Island expe­ri­ence as the fam­i­ly wait­ed for the chil­dren to regain their health and for per­mis­sion to enter the coun­try. When the chil­dren were final­ly healthy, bureau­crat­ic reg­u­la­tions kicked in; at that point the quo­ta of immi­grants from their coun­try had been filled and they were told they would have to return to the Ukraine, the land from which they had recent­ly escaped. Luba uses her artis­tic tal­ents in a resource­ful, cre­ative way, impress­ing the guards and offi­cials with her draw­ing skills and prov­ing to them that she and her fam­i­ly could be suc­cess­ful if allowed to enter.

Con­fi­dent, feisty, tal­ent­ed Luba will win read­ers’ hearts, show­ing them that chil­dren are not always at the mer­cy of oth­ers but can make a dif­fer­ence in the world they inhab­it and can be proac­tive in improv­ing their lot. . This suc­cess-despite-all-odds tale will not over­whelm young read­ers with the dif­fi­cul­ties the fam­i­ly must face because there is a per­va­sive sense of opti­mism throughout.

The book includes an after­word which describes Luba’s adult life, a glos­sary, a sug­gest­ed read­ing list, and ques­tions for dis­cus­sion that par­ents or teach­ers can uti­lize to pro­mote fur­ther inquiry and a deep­er explo­ration of the issues while learn­ing more about this impor­tant piece of Jew­ish Amer­i­can history.

Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and free­lance writer, Helen Weiss Pin­cus, has taught mem­oir writ­ing and cre­ative writ­ing through­out the NY Metro area to senior cit­i­zens and high school stu­dents. Her work has been pub­lished in The New York Times, The Record, The Jew­ish Stan­dard, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She recent­ly added Bub­by” to her job description.

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