No longer safe in their Eastern European homeland, Gittel and Mama prepare for their journey to America in early 1900. As the sun sets the Friday evening before they leave, they light the Shabbos candles and sing the blessing.
The next day, Gittel and Mama say a tearful goodbye to their neighbors, leaving their beloved goat Frieda in their care. Even when Mama has stopped crying, she continues to dab at one eye. With a crowd of people, Gittel and Mama walk to the sea coast. In a large building, they join a long line of people waiting to be questioned by an immigration officer. When they reach the man, he notices Mama’s seeping eye. Though she claims it’s red because she’s been crying, he insists that she has an infection, one that will disqualify her from entering America.
Gittel is shocked when she realizes Mama intends to send her to America by herself. Before they part ways, Mama gives Gittel the Shabbos candles, her ticket, and a paper with the address of Mama’s cousin who plans to meet them at Ellis Island. Mama comforts Gittel by saying, “This is God’s plan. God will take care of you.”
Onboard the massive ship, Gittel feels very small. Day and night, she keeps the address paper with her. She misses Mama and worries if someone will meet her on land, but she also experiences good times and the kindness of strangers.
As the ship finally approaches America, Gittel and other passengers gather to look at the Statue of Liberty. When Gittel has disembarked, she shows an immigration officer the address paper. She’s alarmed when she sees it’s ruined; her constant handling has blurred the ink.
In a marvelous series of events, a newspaper photographer takes Gittel’s picture. An interpreter who has been helping translate for Gittel notices and has a brilliant idea. He arranges to have the picture published the next day in a Jewish newspaper. When Mama’s cousin sees Gittel’s picture, he recognizes her and comes to meet her, then brings her home to his family.
Based on true events in the lives of the author Lesléa Newman’s grandmother and aunt, this stirring children’s picture book shares the plight of immigrants and refugees in the early 1900s when Jews living in Europe experienced persecution. As they learn about Gittel’s difficulties, children can grow in awareness of the struggles of refugees today, including unaccompanied minors.
Illustrator Amy June Bates’s evocative watercolor paintings, surrounded by exquisite borders, effectively portray the fear, joy, grief, tenderness , and anger experienced by Gittel, Mama, and those they encounter. (Abrams Books for Young Readers)