My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The thing about Shirley Hughes is that she’s one of the authors that you think you know. And in a way, you do. When you think Shirley Hughes, you think of things like Dogger, of Alfie, of my Naughty Little Sister and her puckishly naughty face. She’s a doyenne of children’s literature and for good reason. Hughes has come to be one of those writers / illustrators that crosses borders and escapes the echo chamber and has become pretty much instantly recognisable to anybody who’s ever had a kid, been a kid, or walked past a bookshop. You may not know her name but you definitely know her work.
And so, because of all of this, Hero on a Bicycle is really intriguing. It’s her first novel which is quite amazing when you consider her output. Set in Florence in 1944, Paolo and his family are living in troubled times. Florence is under German occupation and it seems that only the Italian resistance is still fighting. But then things, well, they happen, and suddenly Paolo and his mother and sister are drawn into the fight alongside the partisans and against the occupiers.
I really loved this. There’s a slightly old-fashioned feel to Hughes’ writing which is gorgeous. It’s all rich and warm and poignant. At points I found myself thinking of the incomparable The Railway Children. Constanza is definitely cut from the same cloth as my beloved Bobbie.
What I think works about this approach as well is that it allows Hughes to write about people and this is clearly where her strengths lie and have always done so. She’s brilliant at writing the relationships and ties between people and focusing on the smallest of moments. I have a bit of a thing about authors who forget that even at the greatest, world-shifting moments, people still act as people. Hughes doesn’t do that and I actually think that despite Paolo’s obvious appeal, there’s something great about Constanza in this book.
It’s a warm, subtly told tale that doesn’t hold back from the shadows of anything set in wartime. And the quote on the front of my copy, describing it as a ‘new classic’ is utterly spot on.