Sunday, November 7, 2021

I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker: The Diary of a Young Boy at the Outbreak of World War II by Michal Skibinski, illustrated by Ala Bankroft

I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker: 
The Diary of a Young Boy at the Outbreak of World War II
by Michal Skibinsky, illustrated by Ala Bankroft,
translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Prestel Publishing, 2021, 128 pages

Here is an uncomplicated book that captures the summer before WWII began in the notebook of a young boy. Eight-year-old Michal was give a school assignment for the summer holidays to write one sentence in a notebook about something that happened to him each day. The purpose of the assignment was to provide a means for practicing his penmanship and being moved up to the next grade was contingent on faithfully keeping this notebook. Michal's entries begin on July 15, 1939 and end on September 12, 1939. There are not entries for every single day but there are entries for most of them. 

According to the note at the end of this book, Michal lived in Warsaw, Poland. At first, his entries sound like a wonderfully idyllic summer vacation and are about things he observed in nature, like the beautiful woodpecker he saw, and the people he spent time with - his parents, brother Rafal, their nanny, and their  grandparents. 

But gradually, Michal's entries begin to get darker, until September 1, 1939 when he notes that war has begun. On September 6, 1939, he writes that a bomb was dropped near where he was staying. Because he was limited to one sentence per day, readers can only speculate on how he must have felt that day.

What interesting to note about this book, however, is how innocent most of Michal's entries are, even as the adults in his family were fully aware of trouble coming and taking precautions to get him and his brother out of harm's way according to the note at the end of the book. On July 26, 1939, Michal writes that a plane flew over where he was staying (this is the cover image). On the surface, this seems innocent enough, but one wonders if it was a reconnaissance plane from Nazi Germany, given the coming invasion of Poland.

Each entry is a two-page spread containing the date and the entry, but set against the background of Ala Bankroft's incredible painted almost impressionist illustrations reflecting Michal's observations. The colors are bold greens, browns, and blues reflecting nature and as war arrives, become darker, almost black, losing most of their color.  

I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker is an unique document of its time as experienced by a child who probably didn't know what war is or that it was on his doorstep, even as he began his entries. Yet, the truth of his experience is in the simple declarative sentences with which he seems to have unwittingly witnessed the coming war through his young, innocent eyes.  

This book would be a great classroom/home school addition for anyone teaching the history of WWII.    

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was gratefully received from Casey Blackwell at Media Masters Publicity 


  1. You bring so many books from this time, Alex. This sounds both lovely and a little heartbreaking at the same time. Thanks!

  2. Oh my goodness! What a powerful way to tell a story! And I get the feeling it is based on an actual diary? Is that right, Alex? Thanks so much for sharing this.

  3. How interesting. I will have to check this book out. Thanks for the heads up.