(Above: The Penny Matchbox by Mai Ly Degnan. From my Special Collections box. See http://www.mailyillustration.com for more of her work.)
I am trying to get LW’s attention. It’s the only way I can get anything posted around here. So I’ll try the old matchbox trick. How can you not pay attention to a matchbox, particularly if it holds something other than matches, such as, oh, tiny jigsaw puzzles made from postage stamps? Or if topped with picture of Lichtenstein?
It’s working. LW is a sucker for matchbox books, matchbox theaters, matchbox anything, sans the matches, which she fears might somehow spontaneously combust or invite a sniper. (Too many movies.) In exchange for her attention, and the use of her typing fingers, I will show off her new picture book about matchboxes, The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline.
This children’s book opens to a wonderful room of books, antiques, and treasures. A little girl is visiting her great-grandfather. He tells her to pick out whatever she likes the most, and he will tell her its story. She chooses a cigar box. The box contains a collection of matchboxes. She learns that each matchbox holds a small memento (a bottle cap, an olive pit, a ticket) from the old man’s life. He tells her he began to use the boxes as a kind of a diary when he was a child who did not yet know how to read or write.
The Matchbox Diary is another example of an “object book,” a book that uses things as prompts for story telling (see my post of May 23rd). You have probably noticed that I am quite fond of object books myself, this being a kind of “object blog” with books instead of matchboxes. And I happen to hold a few matchboxes in my Special Collections section, a small wooden chest with many drawers. Here is my favorite, a gift one of LW’s special nieces made for her years ago: Baby Jesus in his matchbox manger.
This reminds me that great storytellers such as Jesus often told (or tell) stories around small, single objects—a pearl, a coin, a seed. Jesus may have even held up a mustard seed when he likened one to the Kingdom of Heaven—but could anyone see it? Now imagine if he had pulled it out of a matchbox (Ta-da!). Not that he needed my advice about production values, but still.
What makes matchbox diaries, theaters or mini-museums so appealing? I’ve been thinking about them all these long hours alone with this book, watching it and my other books collect dust while LW works on her shadow shows. And here’s what I think. Repurposed matchboxes pack a charge. This may be a residual metaphorical effect from their original cargo, matches, which function is to spark and ignite. But matchboxes also charge their contents by framing and particularizing them. One tooth or feather, coin or pebble among many may not warrant a glance, but placed within a matchbox, it intrigues the observer, inviting curiosity and speculation.
Matchboxes also appeal by being hiding places, essentially little drawers that open and close. Hiding, too, can magnify power. It’s why we box and wrap presents. Hiding infers the prospect of discovery, revelation, resurrection, and even transformation, as anyone who has seen a magic show knows. What is in the box? What will be revealed? What worlds does it hold, what worlds are to come?
An excerpt from the poem The Little Box by Vasko Popa reminds me of what matchboxes and books hold in common.
…Now in the little box
You have the whole world in miniature
You can easily put it in a pocket
Easily steal it easily lose it
Take care of the little box
This all said, what a wonderful idea it would be to keep a matchbox diary, if my life wasn’t already laid away in books. Take care of your little boxes. Take care of your books.