PPBF – Oscar’s American Dream

With little opportunity to venture into and browse in bookstores since last March, I’ve purchased very few picture books. But when my local indie opened to limited in-store shopping last fall, and when I saw today’s Perfect Picture Book featured, I knew I had to grab my bike, don my mask, and head over to purchase it.

Title: Oscar’s American Dream

Written By: Barry Wittenstein

Illustrated By: Kristen & Kevin Howdeshell

Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books/2020

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: immigration, urban landscapes, dreams

Opening:

Oskar Nowicki arrived at Ellis Island carrying his life in a cardboard suitcase and a skinny roll of money in his coat pocket, a loan from his mother in Poland for a down payment on his dream.

Brief Synopsis:

From Oscar’s dream of a barber shop in the late 19th century to a candy store in the late 20th century, a small corner store reflects the hopes and lives of successive generations of New Yorkers.

Links to Resources:

  • Ask an adult about the home you or they live in. When was it built? How has it changed through the years? Draw a picture of the home then and now;
  • Ask an adult to share older photographs of the town where you live. Think about what has changed. Why do you think these places have changed?
  • See the Curriculum Guide for more ideas.

Why I Like this Book:

In Oscar’s American Dream, American history and the hopes and dreams of waves of immigrants come alive through the history of one corner store. From its first iteration as Polish immigrant Oscar’s All-American barber shop to years as a dress shop, soup kitchen, bodega, candy shop, and more, this one shop is a window into large events, like the Great Depression, and smaller neighborhood changes.

I think kids will better understand these changes as they see them unfold through the many iterations of the corner store. Most notable, I think, is the switch from the late 19th and early 20th century Eastern European immigrants who frequent Oscar’s barbershop, the dress shop, and the soup kitchen, and the mid-20th century newcomer from Puerto Rico who opens up a bodega followed by a television shop.

Although Oscar’s American Dream takes place in a large city, namely the lower east side of New York City, I think even children living in suburban or rural settings have experienced the changing faces of area businesses and will enjoy this book.

The Howdeshells’ soft-hued, detailed illustrations further illuminate societal changes.

A Note about Craft:

It’s no small feat to chronicle 100 years of American history in a way that’s accessible to young children. But by casting a building, a tangible place, as the main character of the story, I think Wittenstein has made it much easier for kids to understand the changes that occurred during the 20th century.

In addition to the corner store itself, the other main characters in this story are adults. To draw in young readers, Wittenstein adds a particularly kid-friendly detail to this fictional story: Oscar gave “lemon drops to all the boys and girls” who visited his barber shop. These same candies appear later as well, as Wittenstein circles back to tie up this story. The Howdeshells include children in almost every spread, too.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

13 responses to “PPBF – Oscar’s American Dream

  1. I really enjoyed this book, but also felt sad at the end.

  2. I love immigration stories at the turn of the 20th century. It was a hard, but so many had big dreams. Many readers will have family stories like Oscar’s. Great way to talk about family.

    • So true. I wish I had asked my own grandparents more questions when I had the chance, but at least picture books like these help us imagine what their lives were like.

  3. This is a great book! You’re so right that it’s tough to mark the passage of time in a PB. This book reminded me of Patricia MacLachlan’s The Hundred Year Barn, where it, too, is used to show the passage of time.

  4. And I forgot to mention that I really love the Howdeshells work. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be half of a creative team like they are….kind if like the Fan brothers, except these two also live together, like the Steads…..

  5. I really like the idea of using a building as the MC and being able to craft a story with adults that can draw in a kid audience. I have been wanting to read this one. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. I like this book, too. It is a nice perspective from which to tell a story.

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