I always knew I would have to write this story one day. I was 19 when I first saw Florence. It was my first visit to Italy. I had my sketchbook with me, and I thought it was the most beautiful city I had ever seen. It was not long after the end of World War II. Tourists were beginning to trickle back, but the bridges over the Arno had been blown up, and there was a lot of poverty. Food was scarce for those who could not afford to buy on the black market.
On Sunday mornings the ex-Partisans used to gather in the square near to where I was living, still sporting their red neckerchiefs and singing their old marching songs. They were freedom fighters who, during the Nazi occupation, had fought a guerrilla war from the hills around the city, hampering German troop movements, blowing up roads and railway lines and helping escaped Allied prisoners of war to rejoin their units. It was a risky undertaking. If they were caught by the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, it meant torture and death.
My fictional 13-year-old “hero on a bicycle”, Paolo Crivelli, is living with his English mother Rosemary and his older sister Constanza in their home outside Florence in the summer of 1944, just as the allied advance is approaching. His father, Franco – a passionate anti-Fascist – is in hiding, none of them know where. It is a dangerous time for the family, made more so by Paolo’s nocturnal bicycle rides. And when Rosemary is persuaded by the shadowy Partisan leader, Il Volpe [The Fox], to hide two escaping Allied prisoners of war in their cellar, things go horribly wrong. Paolo and Constanza are caught up in extraordinary and often terrifying circumstances. But, like all teenagers, they still manage to hang onto their dreams.
This is my first novel and, unlike all my other books, I have not illustrated it myself, apart from chapter headings and, with the help of a great design team at Walker Books, a very arresting cover. But I have been fortunate in having a website which Walker have created, designed to be accessed alongside the book, which gives it a whole visual dimension. Jack Owen has contributed some fascinating research into the weaponry, tanks and other military hardware of the period, and readers can also access contemporary newsreel film of the liberation of Florence. There are my own fashion drawings of the clothes which Constanza might have pored over in her old copies of Vogue, pages from my Italian sketchbooks, and some hit songs of the period, such as ‘La Vie en Rose’, ‘Lili Marlene’ [which troops on both sides sung] and the marching song of the Partisans Bella Ciao.
The pre-publication response to Hero on a Bicycle from teenagers and children, some even as young as 11, has been tremendously encouraging. My main aim was to involve them in a gripping adventure story. But I hope it might also stimulate an interest in that tumultuous period in European history when so many people, civilians as well as the fighting forces, showed such exemplary courage.
“In extraordinary circumstances, people are capable of extraordinary things.”
Hero on a Bike by Shirley Hughes is out on 3 May, published by Walker.