Illus. Amy June Bates. Abrams, 2019. Hardcover Picture book, 48 pages
Historical fiction. Includes: Author’s Note and her family members who inspired the story, as well as notes on their fellow immigrants; Glossary of Yiddish words/phrases used in the story; a Bibliography.
Gittel had already been prepared to leave her belongings, her best friend Raisa and her goat Frieda behind, that—at 9 years of age—she’d have to sail to America without her mother was unexpected. It isn’t safe to stay until Mama can pass the medical evaluation—and we can conclude why. The story opens with her mother bidding Gittel to come in to light the candles with her for Shabbos.
As her mother tells her she must go, she gives Gittel a paper with cousin Mendel’s name and address and the candlesticks. She would keep the tall white candles.
“She had Mama’s candlesticks but no candles. Mama had candles but no candlesticks. Candles and candlesticks belonged together just as she and Mama belonged together.”
In this scene we see Mama and Gittel apart, rendered with the same color palette in watercolor, engaged in the same act of closed-eyes, singing “the Sabbath blessing softly to herself.” The theme of light, flame, guidance, welcome/invitation is extended to the appearance of the Statue of Liberty. Note, too how the candlesticks peek from Gittel’s bag the way candles peek from Mama’s bag, both with the Stature and her torch lifted in the background.
Amy June Bates work is always stunning. The woodblock stamped frames and title page illustrations are gorgeous. Bates literally frames the text with a sense of the historic and cultural. The portraiture in Gittel’s Journey is remarkably effective in translating the feeling of something past while experiencing all the emotion in the present. Families shouldn’t have to flee, be separated, or be kept so vulnerable when they do and are. The Interpreter is a hero.
Newman introduces a compelling tension in the way Gittel tracks the paper her mother gave her. We understand its import and we fear alongside Gittel that she’ll lose it. While she has found kindness on the ship, will there be kindness to greet her at Ellis Island? Will she find Mendel as effortlessly as her mother made it seem?
I love Gittel’s invitation at the close. Her journey was incomplete without Mama and those tall white candles. And it is now her turn to call her mother home and to the lighting of the candles.
Gittel’s Journey is a treasure in text and illustration; two masterful portrait artists capturing a time so presently felt.
Let’s Talk Picture Books talks to Amy June Bates about her process, check it out.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for adults and children. Her literary awards include a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship, the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award, and the Massachusetts Book Award. She lives in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Amy Bates is the illustrator of Loving Hands, Bear in the Air, Minette’s Feast,and The Dog Who Belonged to No One. She lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.