My girls (grade 4 and 7) could have read this on their own, but we decided to read this book aloud as a family, so we could all enjoy and discuss the story as we went along. I’m glad we chose to read it together, because it gave us an opportunity to explore a variety of topics in depth as we read.
Bessie’s story is one that so many of our ancestors shared -from the journey by boat to Ellis Island, to navigating New York city and finding work in a often unfriendly environment. Bessie saw first hand how many Jewish immigrants struggled when they reached New York. Many found themselves stuck working endless hours in factories and living in overcrowded tenements. Bessie recognized how fortunate she was to have a safe place to live and was compassionate to those who were less fortunate.
My girls and I talked at length about how brave Bessie was to make the journey on her own, and how she continued to be courageous and true to herself and her faith as she built a new life for herself in New York. Surely she was tired, scared, lonely, but she continued working and not settling for less.
I was able to relate Bessie’s story back to my own great-grandmother, who came through Ellis Island around the same time in history, by herself, with everything she owned in a single bag when she was only 13. I loved that through this story, we were able to explore the stories of our own family. My daughter’s ancestors on both sides of the family were immigrants during the same time period as Bessie, they visited the same landmarks, and settled in the same areas in the New York region.
Here’s what my 10 year-old had to at about Bessie’s Pillow:
I love this book. It was really fun to listen to and I was surprised by all the awful things she went through to get to America.
We all loved this book. It was fun for us to talk about the different places where Bessie visited and lived. Since we live in the same region, my kids have been to many of the same places, and we talked about how they may have changed over the past hundred years. When the weather around here warms up a bit, we are planning a field trip to Ellis Island, where I am sure we will think about Bessie’s story, as we learn more about the stories of our own family history.
At the end of the book, readers will find additional information to enhance their learning. If you are reading along with your kids, it would be helpful to take a look at this section before beginning the book. It includes information about the popular culture at the time, politics, and important landmarks mentioned in the story. A photo collection is also included, allowing readers to put faces with the names of the people in the story.
Additional study materials that would be particularly helpful for middle and high school level students is available online, including Bessie’s America. This resource will help your student learn more about a variety of topics related to the story, such as food and recipes mentioned in the book, music and entertainment from that era of history, and additional information about European immigration.
I highly recommend this book for kids (and adults!) ages ten and up. It’s a wonderful story and serves as a springboard for learning about our shared history.