I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker

I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker
Michal Skibiński, illustrated by Ala Bankroft
Prestel

This moving, hauntingly beautiful book, set in and close to Warsaw, tells the story of the author around the outbreak of WW2.

Assigned a summer project by his schoolteacher, unaware that war is soon to come, eight year old Michal Skibiński writes a single sentence in his notebook every day. ’15.7.1939 I walked to the brook with my brother and our nanny. ‘ ’27.7.1939 I found a big caterpillar and brought it to our garden.’

Each sentence is given its own double spread with a painting – a natural landscape and unpeopled scenery – by Ala Bankroft. Readers truly feel they’re seeing things as Michael saw them: a church window behind a shadowed stone wall; a verdant woodland – green hues prevail in what is at first, an idyllic time.

After sequences of several spreads of Ala Bankroft’s awesome paintings, the pages of Michal’s notebook written in Polish are photographically reproduced, with translations below.

Little by little though, the boy’s observations start to include images of a war slowly approaching. Then comes a stark ‘The war began’ on 1st September followed five days later by, ‘They dropped a bomb near us.’

Adult readers know that awful things are coming, as Michal still somewhat innocently says on 14th September, ‘Warsaw is defending itself bravely.’ the wooded illustration for this now having an orange sky.

Throughout, the boy’s single line entries intensify the impact of the colours used in the paintings.
Indeed it’s only by reading the notes at the end of the book that we know that his 29.8.1939 ’Daddy came to visit me.’ was to be the last time Michal saw his father. He was a pilot and leader of a Polish bomber squadron, and lost his life in a plane crash on 9th September. This powerful resonant revelation brought a lump to my throat when I read it. Here we also learn that today, Michal Skibiński lives in a retirement home for priests and a photo on the book’s back inside cover underscores just how real this story is.

Yes a thing of beauty in its own right, but this unusual, splendidly designed book would also make a good starting point for a class theme on World War 2.

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