Amazing True Stories: The Ellis Experience


Written by Ginger Clarke. Illustrated by Diego Jourdan and Gaston Souto.

Ten-year-old Giorgio, his older brother, Giovanni, younger sister, Giulia, mother and stepfather have fallen on hard times. His parents struggle trying to find work in Italy. A former solider, Mr. Casilli is willing to take any job to support his family. In the face of adversity, they decide to risk it all and immigrate to America. After hearing wonderful stories—that it’s the land of freedom and opportunity…where the streets are paved with gold… they decide they have nothing left to lose.

Selling most of their belongings to afford the trip across the ocean, Mama Casilli frets that she must leave many of her nicest possessions behind. But Giorgio packs his two greatest treasures: his dead father’s old watch and his marbles…as he wishes his father could have seen America, too. Parting from their loved ones isn’t easy. But as the Casillis travel by horse-driven cart to take a train to the ocean port, they grow more and more excited about the adventure ahead.

Before the Casillis board the ship, they, along with other passengers, are treated for lice and vaccinated to protect them from diseases. The needles hurt little Giulia, but her mother urges her to be brave. On the boat, the family’s high hopes soon fade. The Casillis must travel in steerage, where they’re overcrowded and only given soup, bread, and potatoes to eat. Many passengers fall ill and die. But the Casillis spend as much time as they can on the deck and enjoy the ocean air. Giorgio plays marbles with other children. They do their best to keep their spirits high throughout the long, hard journey.

At long last, the family arrives in America. They’re overjoyed – as the ship sails past New York’s skyscrapers, Giorgio is convinced they have arrived in heaven. Though the worst is to come. First-class and second-class travelers are allowed off the ship. But steerage passengers are shipped to an inspection station on Ellis Island with people from many other countries. It’s frustrating for the Casillis, who had hoped to be treated equally in their new land.

Ellis Island is dirty and crowded, full of angry inspectors and crying children. Giorgio feels like an animal at the zoo—he’s terrified that the family won’t pass inspection and will be shipped back to Italy. Doctors suspect that Giulia is sick. She’s quarantined, and an upset Mama Casilli is also taken away. But the family perseveres. They’ve traveled too far and sacrificed too much to give up and lose hope.

Combining facts and illustrations with the Casillis’ story, Amazing True Stories: The Ellis Island Experience lays bare the immigrant experience of the 19th Century and paints a picture of the dignity that so many are denied as they strive for the freedom of the great American dream. Immigrants are all of us, with hopes and dreams for a brighter future.