IntroductionAfter several decades of illustrating and writing children’s books, Shirley Hughes, now in her eighties, reached back into her girlhood to write a story inspired by her visit to Florence, Italy shortly after World War II ended. In her debut novel, Hero on a Bicycle, Hughes gives her audience a thrilling tale of a young Italian boy desperately seeking to add adventure to his mundane life while his partisan father is in hiding from the German army occupying the city.
StorylineThirteen-year-old Paolo Crivelli is living in the hills outside of Florence, Italy with his seventeen-year-old sister, Constanza, his English mother, Rosemary, and their maid, Maria.
It’s 1944 and while their city is under German occupation, the partisans (guerilla fighters who oppose both the Nazi rule and the Fascist party) are hiding among the mountains of Italy. Paolo’s father Franco is part of the partisan group and the family has not seen him in months.
Paolo, bored with staying home, quietly waits for other members of his family to fall asleep before he sets out to ride his bicycle to the city in search of adventure. Unbeknownst to him, his mother and sister are aware of his nightly bike rides, and while his mother knows it’s her duty as a parent to warn Paolo of the risks, she understands his need to find adventure after being confined all day to a house full of women. Each night she lies awake listening for the sounds of Paolo’s return while thinking about the nosy neighbors and observant German officials who question her loyalties.
Already living in fear and worry, Rosemary is secretly approached by two partisans who adamantly insist she help them hide two Allied prisoners of war.
Wanting to show support for her husband, Rosemary squelches her overwhelming panic and conspires with her family on the best way to hide the prisoners. Paolo and Constanza find themselves embroiled in a dangerous undertaking to protect two soldiers whom they gradually begin to see as friends. When information is leaked to the German army about the family’s possible involvement in harboring prisoners of war, Paolo makes a courageous decision to help the prisoners that puts him and his family in grave danger.
Author Shirley HughesShirley Hughes first saw Florence, Italy as nineteen year old girl at the end of World War II. During her visit she met a family who helped Allied prisoners of war. She took notes, made sketches, and years later, after a prolific and stunning career illustrating and writing children’s’ books, Hughes decided to write the story based on the family she met as a teenager. Hughes currently lives in London, England. Hero on a Bicycle is her first novel. (Sources: Hero on a Bicycle Website, Candlewick Press)
My RecommendationWhile there are many historical fiction books set during World War II for middle grade readers, Hero on a Bicycle is an original. The story takes place in an Italian household consisting of a mother and father who are rebelling against the enemy in two different ways. Franco, the father, is a known rebel who is fighting against not only the Nazi occupation, but also the Fascist Italian government that supports Hitler. His actions force him to hide away in the mountains leaving his family vulnerable to suspicion.
Meanwhile, Rosemary is an English woman married to an Italian, and although she’s proven herself a loyal wife and mother, her birthplace marks her as a person to be watched. Her connections to the partisans and her ability to speak English put her in a compromising position, one that endangers her family and puts into question her loyalty to her husband. While living in full view of the enemy, her rebellion is masked by pretense that all is well.
With all the excitement going on in the city and with a father embroiled in guerilla tactics, Paolo wants to play his part in the war. The tension is high. The pacing of danger and risk is palpable, and readers are swept up in the story of this little Italian family. The main voices, Paolo, Rosemary, and Constanza, give insight into their thoughts about the war.
The short chapters and points of view navigate readers easily and thrillingly through the story. From Paolo’s covert bike riding at night and his fear of being caught, to Rosemary’s choice to hide two prisoners of war amid the gossip of nosy neighbors and watchful German soldiers, to Contstanza’s friendship and blossoming feelings for one of the prisoners, readers are rarely left without some exhilarating emotion leaping off the pages.
My twelve-year-old son loved this book, and even recommended it to me. Identifying with the need for adventure, he is not unlike most middle grade boys who can probably relate to Paolo’s boredom and yearning to be part of the action. In my opinion, Hero on a Bicycle is one of the best historical fiction books for middle grade readers. It’s amazing that such a small book is so jam-packed with emotion and adventure.
A thrilling, believable, original and quick read, Hero on a Bicycle is bound to become a classic in the historical fiction canon for young readers. This is a wonderful book that I highly recommend to readers 10-14 years old. (Candlewick Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780763660376)