There are periods in our history of which we may not be proud but which we need to remember. ‘I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker’ is a poignant reminder of the impact of war on many cities and on the lives of millions. I am extremely honoured to have been asked to host a piece by Michał and Ala about how this very special book came together.
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker – blog post for Library Girl & Book Boy
Michał Skibiński, author and Ala Bankroft, illustrator
In the Summer of 1939, 8-year-old Polish school boy, MichałSkibiński, was tasked by his teacher with keeping a diary during the summer holidays, to improve his writing and ensure he was ready to move up to the next grade at school. The task was a simple one: one line every day. Little did Michał know as he began to document walks by the river and the nature in his garden, that this summer would see the outbreak of World War II. Here, Michał, now a retired priest nearing his 90th birthday, and illustrator Ala Bankroft talk about how the book came together.
The journal starts out with a typical boy’s observations: “July 15: I went to a stream with my brother and teacher.” “July 23: I found a caterpillar.” However over the course of weeks, menacing details emerge. “July 27: A plane was circling over Anin.” “September 1: The war has begun.” “September 3: I hid from planes.” “September 14: Warsaw is bravely defending itself.” These haunting entries are interspersed with visits from relatives, a soccer game, a trip to a park, an ice cream cone.
The survival of this book from the summer of 1939 is thanks to my mother’s care. At the beginning of the war, my mother went to the ruins of our house in Fałata Street and collectedvarious papers and mementoes. Among other things, she saved two red folders, one with the inscription “Michał”, the other “Rafał” (my brother), containing baptismal certificates and various important papers and memories from our childhoods. My brother and I had no idea about the existence of these files.
Only after my mother died, in 1974, at a relatively early age (she was 69), we sorted through her documents and we found these red folders. Inside the one inscribed “Michał” I found my old school notebook. Later, I gave the book to my brother, and he to his son, my nephew. It was my nephew who had the idea of approaching the original publisher, in Poland. The fact that my schoolboy diary has now been published, so many years later, and so beautifully illustrated by Ala, is a great joy for me. The illustrations have really changed my feelings about the book. I initially considered the diary a result of my laziness at school, but Ala’s wonderful paintings have brought my words to life in a way I couldn’t have imagined before I saw her work, and now I am very proud of the book!
Initially, I was asked by the publisher to create some sample illustrations for the book, to show potential illustrators the kind of thing they had in mind. At the time I was an MA student in my final year at the Graphic Art Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and I hadn’t ever considered book illustration. When I read the diary I was, of course, extremely moved, and that must have come through in my paintings as the publishers really liked my samples so I was signed up to illustrate the whole book!
We came to conclusion that illustrating the book too literally would destroy the fragile message, but if we focused on the child’s point of view, and the feelings, this could be something special.
Everybody has at least one bright memory from his or her childhood. These are usually dreamlike scenes, which we don’t even remember clearly, but there is some idyllic feeling accompanying them. These are the kind of images I set out to create. Michał is a Varsovian (from Warsaw) and so am I. Even though he retired the year I was born, and many things have changed since his childhood, the sun still shines the same in Milanówek and the pines still grow near Warsaw. It would have been pointless to fake his summer holidays memories, so I painted mine. That is, I think, the power of this book, that it is at the intersection of two children’s views on the world, and the realization we all have as we grow up, that things are not always so idyllic. I wanted to capture these universal feelings in my paintings; the feeling of joy when hot July welcomes you in the garden and you have absolutely nothing to worry about, and then the anxiety when something bad is happening, but you don’t even understand it. The feeling that your paradise is slowly being destroyed and there’s nothing you can do about it – that is something that really moved me in Michał’s diary.
I wanted to show the drama of war coming, but without showing the war. I didn’t want it to be a war book. The book shows the drama via the child’s eyes, from a totally different point of view. The evil coming is impersonal. It is just the premonition of evil which lurks around the corner, behind the trees. And this feeling is universal, regardless of your nationality. Everybody was a child once and has experienced fear. I wanted to show it in a universal way.
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker: The Diary of a Young Boy at the Outbreak of World War II by Michał Skibiński and illustrated by Ala Bankroft is published by Prestel on 7th October 2021, £11.99 hardback.
What absolutely fascinating insights on how this book came into existence. I love that the author and illustrator had almost parallel childhoods but in very different times. Ala’s illustrations really do bring the observations of an eight-year-old boy to life in the most wonderful way.
There are lots of wonderful children’s novels based on the events of the Second World War, but what really sets this title apart is that it’s the real thoughts of a real child who lived through that period. It is highly accessible to all readers and will doubtless elicit many conversations about WW2 and the impact of war (then and now) on people’s lives.
*Many thanks to Prestel for sending me this title to review*