Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hero on a Bicycle, Shirley Hughes

Hero on a BicycleWhen Paolo reached the deserted stretch of road where it was too steep to pedal, he dismounted and began to wheel his bicycle instead. He knew it was far too late for him to be out.

This Saturday I was feeling rather under the weather, and then something arrived in the mail that was just what I needed: two MG books from Candlewick Press, one of which was Hero on a Bicycle. "Italy, 1944: Florence is occupied by Nazi forces. The Italian resistance movement has not given up hope, though — and neither have thirteen-year- old Paolo and his sister, Costanza. As their mother is pressured into harboring escaping POWs, Paolo and Costanza each find a part to play in opposing the German forces. Both are desperate to fight the occupation, but what can two siblings — with only a bicycle to help them — do against a whole army? Middle-grade fans of history and adventure will be riveted by the action and the vividly evoked tension of World War II."

But Hero on a Bicycle was kind of disappointing. Maybe middle grade books just don't appeal to me anymore because they seem so simplistic. Despite the fact that Hero on a Bicycle is about World War II resistance fighters, it was kind of boring. Somewhat boring is a great phrase to describe this one. You could also put a positive spin on it and call it mildly diverting. I also felt that it was really, really flat; I couldn't become interested in Florence, or the resistance movement, or the main characters. Many elements felt forced, like why the resistance movement wanted to talk to Paolo's mother. It didn't make all that much sense. I also really did not like the character of the sympathetic German officer; he was also completely one-dimensional. 

MG fiction may be very easy, but middle grade readers aren't stupid. They like the things that everyone likes in books: great characters, plot, setting, development, etc. Hero on a Bicycle just didn't have that. I was looking forward to reading an easy book, but not this easy. Even though a lot happens in Hero on a Bicycle, as I was reading, I felt that nothing happened. If that makes sense. 

There are some amazing children's books about World War II (such as Code Name Verity, an all-time favorite), there are some good ones, and then there are ones, that fail to capture World War II. I'm certainly no expert on the period, but I have read a lot of fiction about it, and there weren't enough details in Hero on a Bicycle. Again, details sell the story. And there weren't many in this novel.

The New York Times called it a " historical novel for older children". Um, hello? I love the New York Times, but that is just too much. It's listed as 10-14, but it seemed to me to be more like 8-11 or something like that. Most literary-minded fourteen year olds are not going to be interested. I certainly wasn't. 

I did appreciate the fact that the author had the reader enter many of the characters' heads, rather than just one. We got to see what each of them was thinking, and how each of them was coping with wartime difficulties. That was nice, but it didn't make up for the let-down. However, I am looking forward to the other book I received from Candlewick, the sequel to Ruby Redfort. This one, though, is one that I would definitely skip. Younger readers may enjoy it, but I don't think it's for older readers. Just to be clear: MG fiction (like Savvy) is great, and I am certainly not opposed to people older than the "target age" reading it. Just not this particular work. 

I will say that like The Candymakers, the later sections got much better, and although he was also cardboard-like, I did like the character of the Canadian officer. 

Read Hero on a Bicycle:
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like Shirley Hughes's picture books
213 pages. 
Okay book, but it left me wanting more!

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