Peppe the Lamplighter by Elisa Bartone

  • Title: Peppe the Lamplighter
  • Author: Elisa Bartone
  • Illustrator: Ted Lewin
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 1997
  • ISBN:0688154697
  • List Price: $6.99 (PB)
  • Page Count: 32
  • Age Range: 4-8
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Caldecott Honor book

Author information: Elisa Bartone does not have a website or much of an online presence. She has written two children’s books, Peppe and American Too. A variety of Google searches turned up no additional information about this author, such as interviews or biographical information. I was unable to even ascertain whether the author was still alive, but her most recent title was released in 1997.

Reviews: This title received positive reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly. All of these reviews comment on the moral and happy ending of the book as well as the depiction of the relationship between Peppe and his father. Although the reviews mention this, they primarily focus on the captivating artwork of the book. SLJ says the illustrations ” give a strong sense of time and place” and PW says that the artwork “exhibit[s] a cinematic sweep that proves quite remarkable”. All of the reviews agree that this is a beautiful and rich book.

Readers annotation: Peppe’s job may not be glamorous, but his heroic actions earn him the respect of his family and community.

Summary: Peppe is a young Italian immigrant who now lives in New York City. His father is ill and his mother dead, so he has to find a job to support his family. He asks for work at a variety of shops, but none can use his help. He eventually finds a job as a street lamplighter, but his father disapproves of the job. His father scolds him so much over his work that Peppe decides not to light the lamps one night because he is so sad and ashamed. Because he doesn’t light the lamps, his youngest sister gets lost in the dark, and his father begs him to go and light the lamps, and tells him that it’s a very important job. He finds his sister when he lights the lamps, and his family and his father are very proud of him.

Evaluation: The story of Peppe and his family is told with heart and the message of the book transcends its historical setting. Peppe’s relationship with his father is characterized as a strained one; it is clear that his father disapproves of his job because he had hoped for greater things for his son, but Peppe is hurt by his father’s lack of support and shame. The resolution at the end shows Peppe’s father acknowledging his mistake and telling his son how proud he is of him, which will warm the reader’s heart. Although the plot is well executed, the true strength of this book lies in its artwork. Each page is meticulously detailed and brings the story to life with its rendering of the garb and streets of 1900s New York. The illustrator also does an amazing job with his use of light; often the scenes are painted in dark colors other than the light of a streetlamp or house lamp, which helps set the tone of the story and makes light an important focal point of the narrative.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  4/5  The artwork is stunning and conveys a strong sense of place and time, and goes far in developing the tone of the book. The story is sweet and would lend itself well to discussion.
  • Popularity: 4/5 The story builds slowly, which may discourage readers who are interested in more action, but the book will satisfy those who want a quiet and heartwarming story.
  • Appeal factors: historical fiction, detailed illustrations, father-son relationships, happy ending, immigrant story.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Crow Call by Lois Lowry would be a good recommendation for readers who enjoyed the historical fiction aspect of Peppe as well as the child-father relationship it presented. Liz, the young protagonist, doesn’t know her father very well because he’s been away at WWII, so this story follows their attempts to reconnect.
  2. For those who would like to read more about the immigrant experience, Home at Last by Susan Middleton Elya might be a good fit. Although the setting is more contemporary than Peppe, this book still shows the struggle that many immigrants face when trying to adapt to a new culture.

Book talk ideas: The strength of this story is the illustrations, so I might take one of them and ask the audience to tell me everything they notice about the picture. We could talk about the clothing, the carriages, the lamps, the lights, and anything else they might notice. I would use this conversation to segue into a brief synopsis of the book’s plot, emphasizing the fact that Peppe is doing a job in order to support his family even though his father does not approve of his work.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why doesn’t Peppe’s father want him to be a lamplighter?
  2. Do you think Peppe and his father have a better relationship at the end of the book? Why?
  3. What images in the book let you know that the story takes place in the past? Which illustration is your favorite?

Reason for reading: This was one of the last picture books I read for this assignment. I had already read more than the required fifteen award winning picture books, but I was looking for titles that I felt I could say a lot about and that made me have a strong reaction, regardless of whether that reaction were positive or negative. I had intended to review one of the other books I had read for this project but just didn’t feel I had enough to say about any of those titles for a review of it to be productive, so I consulted more Caldecott lists to see if any titles struck me that I may have overlooked before. Peppe appealed to me because my grandfather, with whom I am very close, is a first generation Italian American, and the turn-of-the-century immigrant story is part of my family’s lore.

Additional information: Peppe the Lamplighter is loosely based on a story that the author heard about her grandfather. Her grandfather emigrated from Italy and eventually owned a chicken market in New York. The names of Peppe’s siblings are the real names of Bartone’s grandfather’s family.

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