It is a shame when labels are attached to books for children. Labels can sometimes limit audience due to misunderstandings, particularly when some adults think that you ‘grow out’ of picture books or illustrated works. Others may dismiss information titles preferring stories they can escape into. When a special book appears that is tricky to allocate to a specific genre or type of reading it may get overlooked. In the last few weeks I have read two special books that deserve close attention. Both of them are translations into English, both contain beautiful illustrations and they both contain important subject matter that prompts thoughtful discussion.
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker: The Diary of a Young Boy at the Outbreak of World War 11 by Michal Skibinzki illustrations by Ala Bancroft translated by Eliza Marciniak
In the summer of 1939 in Warsaw, Poland an eight year old boy named Michal was given an assignment by his teacher. In order to improve his handwriting Michal is to keep a journal writing one sentence a day about his activities. Over eighty years later his diary has been published accompanied by beautiful, sensitive illustrations. Michal’s poignant diary moves from the innocence of a childhood summer to the outbreak of a war which will change his family’s lives for ever.
The simplicity of the diary entries is touching, short sentences capture Michal’s life and his experiences. July 15th ‘I walked to the brook with my brother and nanny.’ 21st July ‘I went for a walk with Grandma.” 23rd July “I found a big caterpillar and brought it to our garden.” Michal sounds like a boy who enjoys his surroundings and nature. There are rides in cars, a rare treat; wasps caught in jars; football games; ice creams and of course, ‘ the beautiful woodpecker.’ It reminds me of the weekend news write up my own sons used to be required to complete on Mondays at Junior School. But there are occasional glimpses of what is to come. 26th July ‘A plane circled over Anin.’ 29th July ‘The power in Anin went out.’ Then 1st September ‘The war began.” 3rd September ‘I was hiding from the planes.’ The tone of Michal’s journal changes and the note at the end of the book explains how his family were affected by the war.
This is a poignant and moving read. The translated journal is interspersed with reproductions of Michal’s original diary and it is touching to see the little boy’s corrections and crossings out. A little boy completing his homework task so like little boys of the same age today but with such different content. The illustrations are beautiful and enhance the diary entries intensifying the alteration in mood as the days pass and life changes. The hazy summer days misty in the memory gradually darkening as war comes and the fear increases for Michal are portrayed in the gorgeous, subtle paintings.
This is an extraordinary record of a dramatic moment in world history made accessible to primary school children. The book could be used to support the teaching of World War 2 in the classroom and may be a basis from which to explore the concept of diaries as a primary history source. However, most importantly, this is a beautiful book, a testimony to the life of young Michal and the wonderful photo of the now elderly Michal holding the book in his hands on the back cover is touching and uplifting.
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker was published on 7th October by Prestel and is available to purchase on their website. I would like to thank the publishers and Catherine Ward for my review copy.
This Is A Dictatorship by Equipoise Plantel illustrated by Mikel Casal translated by Lawrence Shimel
Book Island publish picture books with a difference and this is their first non-fiction title and it is a book with a powerful message. This Is A Dictatorship was first published as part of a series in Spain soon after the death of Franco and the end of his dictatorship. Now forty years later it has been republished with new illustrations and has been translated into several languages. Its message remains as important and as relevant as it did when the book was first published.
From the endpapers onwards this tackles a difficult subject in a manner that makes it an excellent introduction to the need for democracy. The cover itself is a dramatic depiction of the crushing of the population by a dictator against a stark black background. The dictators depicted inside the front cover are arranged by date of birth and on the endpapers inside the back cover by date of death, one dictator, Teodoro Obiang, is still alive. The repeated use of colour, particularly the bright pink and the black, is striking.
The text is carefully pitched to provide a simple explanation of the subject. ‘The person who dictates is the one who commands. He is the master of everyone because he has become the owner of EVERYTHING.’ It goes on to depict how a dictator rules in his own environment and also in the wider community and country. Those who do not agree are silenced, exiled or imprisoned and Mikel Casal, who grew up under Franco’s regime, uses contrasting colour to show the differences in life for those who agree and those who do not in his stunning, caricature style illustrations. The manipulation of people with the promise of power and money and the importance of free speech and thought is all covered in an appropriate way for the book’s target audience.
This book invites further research of the dictators depicted and discussion about its themes, both in history and in the present day. It will encourage children to notice and question, to think and to learn. I have read comments by several teachers on the excellent conversation this book has prompted in the classroom and I can well understand why. A brilliant book with an important message and a valuable addition to primary school classrooms and libraries.
This Is A Dictatorship was published in September by Book Island and is available to purchase on their website. I should like to thank Greet Pauwelijn of Book Island for my review copy.