Every night, 13-year-old Paolo Crivelli sneaks out of his villa in Florence to ride his bicycle. This stealthy act is even riskier because it’s the summer of 1944 and Nazi troops occupy his beloved city. Fully aware of Paolo’s clandestine adventures are his British-born mother (an enemy in the eyes of the Germans) and his sister Constanza, a typical 16-year-old who’s grown restless reading her outdated Vogue magazines and listening to Edith Piaf. His father, on the other hand, has disappeared, presumably with the Partisans, the anti-Fascist band of rebels that hides in the hills and carries out subversive missions.
Paolo’s evening rides become fraught with danger when his mother reluctantly agrees to help hide escaped Allied prisoners. Suddenly, no one can be trusted completely with the family’s secret, not the nosy neighbors, their live-in housekeeper, or the German lieutenant who shows a fondness for Constanza when the Gestapo starts searching the house. The boy’s chance encounters with the Partisans and their leader, Il Volpe (“The Fox”), heighten the suspense as they battle to liberate Florence.
Inspired by a courageous family she met in Florence just after World War II, Shirley Hughes, the author of more than 50 picture books and illustrator of more than 200, had longed to tell this story for years. Amazingly, Hero on a Bicycle is her debut novel. With a style that recalls children’s classics, Hughes writes with a keen appreciation for children’s sensibilities, but never insults them by avoiding the harsh realities of war. Her captivating historical fiction reveals a few of the many unsung heroes of World War II, some with guns and bombs as ammunition, and others with only a bike.