Immigrants to the United States carry different types of baggage. The items they pack with them often reflect their past experiences and their hopes for the future. Such is certainly the case in Straw Bag, Tin Box, Cloth Suitcase. Coauthors Jane Yolen, Marjorie Lotfi, and Raquel Elizabeth Artiga de Paz — who have roots in Ukraine, Iran, and El Salvador, respectively — describe the oppression that drove them from their homes and the new lives their families built in America.
In the first section, Sarah finds an old straw handbag in her grandmother’s bedroom and is curious about the articles of clothing inside. She learns that they belonged to her great-great-grandmother, Manya, who was driven from her shtetl in Ukraine by antisemitic pogroms. She asks her grandmother what a shtetl is, and also wants to know if Manya and her family traveled to America by train. Her questions reveal the gap between generations that the conversation needs to bridge. Only by locating pieces of clothing in their historical context can Sarah begin to appreciate the obstacles to freedom that Manya faced.
In the second section, we are introduced to Grace, whose mother and grandparents escaped the shah’s dictatorship in Iran. She asks her mother about a rusted tin lunch box, which brings back memories of a former life. And in the third section, Raquel finds a cloth suitcase in a closet and is reminded of the brutal circumstances of her childhood in El Salvador. Unlike Sarah and Grace, Raquel was directly involved in the terrifying incidents that drove emigrants out. Her story, paired with those of the other girls, shows us that injustice is not a relic of the past — that the difficulties faced by immigrants are a daily reality for many.
The text combines factual narration with poetic details and metaphor. Grace’s mother relates how she decorated her nails with pink rose petals instead of nail polish. Raquel’s account is sometimes stark, telling the unvarnished truth: “Every night bugs crawled over their faces. There was only one bathroom for all the people in the house.” Sarah’s grandmother tells of how Manya and her relatives waited anxiously to board the ship to America, afraid that they would be denied passage if they failed a health examination. A modern airplane transported Grace’s family members, but the trip was no less perilous. Navigation devices had been removed from the plane in order to discourage emigrants from leaving the country. The apparent improvements of modern technology could not prevent corruption by dictators.
Fotini Tikkou’s richly colored images stress both the distinctive and universal aspects of immigration. They also highlight the courage of the female characters, who are motivated to defy authority and care for the vulnerable. Sarah’s grandmother is dressed in muted gray, but the bright red dress she holds up to her granddaughter connects them to Jewish life in Eastern Europe. A protest in Iran features some women wearing hijabs and others with long, uncovered hair.
The role of immigrants is not an abstraction in this inspiring book, which grants each character the dignity of a particular set of motives and consequences. At the same time, the authors and illustrator portray immigration as a formative experience that unites Americans. Straw Bag, Tin Box, Cloth Suitcase concludes with an afterword explaining the authors’ own family backgrounds.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.