I wrote Bartali's Bicycle in 2016 after watching an incredible documentary called My Italian Secret, produced by Oscar-nominated Oren Jacoby and narrated by Isabella Rossellini. I was spellbound! I remember it was a rainy gray day, and I was snuggled up on the sofa channel-surfing when I came upon it. It was filled with eyewitness accounts of the brave deeds of unspoken heroes of World War II. These were people who quietly saved lives but not all of them were ordinary people like you and me. Some were wealthy enough that they did not have to help anybody. They could have fled to the United States or, I don't know, gone to their summer homes across the sea? But they chose to put their own lives in jeopardy because there were people in need, people who would have died in concentration camps otherwise.
I had been searching for a story like this -- something meaningful that I could spend time with and turn into a picture book for children. At the same time, I had also been exploring my Jewish heritage. My father was Jewish, but his version of Judaism included matzo ball soup and sleeping till noon on Christmas. That was about it. I never learned much about his childhood in New York City either because he grew up very poor in Harlem and didn't want to think about it. He told me once that the poor people lived in Brooklyn and the lower east side, but the really destitute Jews lived in Harlem. I don't know if that was true, but it always made me appreciate my middle class upbringing in Texas, far from the cockroach-infested apartments he described on those few occasions when he gave in to a case of nostalgia and actually talked about it.
So there I was, watching this documentary, my heart swelling with each story. Then came a segment featuring this man, Gino Bartali, who had won the 1938 Tour de France. He was a devout Catholic. I mean, he took his faith very seriously. He believed that if you talked about a good deed it was no longer a good deed. If you were to do a good deed, it must be done in secret. Now, that was a problem for me because I would need to uncover this man's deeply held secrets if I was to write about him. Two trips to Italy later, I had an overstuffed portfolio and a desktop full of notes, some in Italian waiting to be translated from my voice memo app on my phone. This was getting real!
I spread out all the information I gathered from the Gino Bartali Museum, the Museum of Memory in Assisi, interviews, and text conversations with Gino Bartali's granddaughter, Lisa Bartali. I wrote and rewrote the story many times, especially the spread about the man I refuse to name. Notoriety is, after all, for those who are worthy of it, right? I must have worked on that spread for a solid month before I decided to make it about The Lie. Here it is:
I wanted to describe the evil in these terms so that the book would be accessible to even young children, and I wanted them to understand the importance of Gino's heroism and courage in context.
This was the deciding moment. Would he choose to obey his conscience, that ache in his heart for the destinies of these Jewish families? Or would he cringe and hold back and protect his own family by staying out of it altogether?
Earlier, we caught a glimpse of what he would choose to do when he won the Tour de France. He was told that if he won this most prestigious and grueling race, he was to dedicate his win to Mussolini, the supreme fascist leader of Italy. But when the time came, he just couldn't do it. He had won this award in honor of his brother Giulio who was struck by a car while cycling and killed. This was his proudest moment, his big win, and he refused to dedicate it to a dictator. No, that was not going to happen.
For punishment, after winning the Tour de France, he came home to Florence, Italy, to no parades or honors or even applause. The citizens were told if they celebrated his win, they would be considered unpatriotic rebels and might even be arrested. This must have been difficult for Gino to endure after all that training! But that is what life was like under Mussolini -- and later, it would get even worse when the Nazis took control of northern Italy.
To learn more about what happened, you'll have to read my book! It was a joy to mine the depths, uncover the facts, and get at the real story behind this remarkable man's exploits. In today's world, what he did seems almost too good to be true. That he would sacrifice his own safety and risk being arrested or even put to death to save people from being herded like cattle and sent to concentration camps seems to us truly amazing. Almost unbelievable. But did you know there are heroes today who risk their lives, too? Some of them also do it quietly. I hope we don't have to wait decades to celebrate their bravery, and I hope my book will inspire others to reach for the courage and determination to lay down their own hopes and dreams to serve others. That is what made Gino Bartali a true champion.
Come to my launch party for Bartali's Bicycle, sponsored by SCBWI Carolinas! You can sign up here.
When Megan Hoyt first stepped into a tiny library in East Dallas and checked out The Fairy Doll, time stood still for one brief moment. A book! A lovely, magical book about a little girl, overshadowed and overlooked, the youngest of four, just like me! she thought. Rumer Godden gave way to Madeleine L’Engle and Frances Hodson Burnett. Soon, a sturdy, low-hanging backyard branch became a thoughtful spot where some rather large ideas began to take shape. If reading James Barrie can make a girl flap her arms and jump off a garden wall fully expecting to fly, books truly do pulse with life.