Ellis Island by Molly Aloian

Ellis Island

My grandparents were not quite of the humble origins they claimed to have been, something I found out years after they were gone. I’d assumed, based on their complaints about of the rough crossing of the seas from Sicily to New York, and on their stories of penury and struggle, that they would have been amongst the throngs that entered the United States through legendary Ellis Island. I had always assumed all Italians in the Northeast had had to pass through that portal. But it turned out there were no records of them. They had not been subjected to that entrance exam because first and second class passengers were usually cleared aboard ship and allowed directly into the city, assuming there were no legal or health issues. So much for the humblest of origins lore. But because of my previous presumption,I have always had a strong interest in the place, and Ellis Island by Molly Aloian is one of the best books for youngest readers and pre-readers that I’ve come across.

It contains a mix of photos, both black-and-white and colorized, and beautiful Jules Breton-like illustrations from the peak period of European immigration. Important terms are defined in sidebars throughout. The text pulls no nationalistic punches: We learn of racism, disease, long detentions, deportations, and of herding into ethnic neighborhoods, the popping of the bubble of the Promised Land. So, even though Nana and Grampa had it comparably easy compared to the masses honored in this book, I’m able to experience (from my safe distance) what I’m sure was my grandmother’s sense of being overwhelmed by this new, not-so-magical and not-so welcoming world.

The book also mentions other immigration entry ports such as Angel Island in San Francisco and Grosse Isle in Quebec.Today Ellis Island is a museum–the suffering and disappointment can only speak through exhibits. But the majesty of the human desire to survive and thrive hopefully speak louder.

Ellis Island (48 pages) is published by Crabtree Publishing Company.

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