I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker is perhaps the book that most surprised, moved, challenged, and stayed with me this year, the book that I have spent the most time trying to articulate why I’m drawn to it. That’s what this is, I think: another attempt to describe what I’m seeing in the hopes that you, too, will see it. I included the book in the Wild Rumpus Winter Buyer’s Guide because when I first held it I was stopped cold, completely enthralled by the book as an object combined with the book’s content. It’s the kind of book I want to (and have been able to!) put in the hands of young people, to say, “this is another way of understanding history and you too can be a keeper of history.”
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker not exactly poetry, though it is spare and often poetic. It’s a picture book, though often we think of picture books as having a story, perhaps a moral, a problem that is solved by the end, but I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker doesn’t conform, though there is a narrative in a manner of speaking. The book is a historical document, though it has been re-imagined—or perhaps it’s better to say re-imaged—to be more dynamic, more colorful: it features full-color, glossy pages with a sewn binding. It’s a hardcover book with an image wrapped around the spine. As an object, it is beautifully made.
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker is an art object created from a historical document. The document itself is jarring: in summer 1939, an eight-year-old Michał Skibiński, living in Warsaw, Poland, was assigned a handwriting exercise: he had to write a single sentence every day as a condition of moving into the next year of school. Throughout the book, there are facsimiles of Michał’s notebook in Polish, with English translations printed at the bottom of the page. The diary begins on July 15, 1939 and continues through September 15, 1939.
As a result of this assignment, Michał documented the days leading up to and just following the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, as only an eight-year-old could. The entries are often mundane, but they are loaded with the kind of subtext only the hindsight of history can give, haunting and ominous.
Before even opening the book, the reader is given ample clues as to the context of these sentences. On the cover is a subtitle: The Diary of a Young Boy at the Outbreak of World War II. On the back cover: “The young Michał [wrote a sentence every day] as he was told, but school didn’t restart in September that year, World War II broke out instead.” Of course, there were political tensions and rising fascism for years leading up to the war, but what eight-year-old is paying that kind of attention? Of course Michał is focused on finding bugs. But of course those global tensions filtered through to an impressionable young boy. When we are arrive at the arresting pages shown above with the sentence, “A plane circled over Anin,” we feel know more than Michał does. We know what that plane signifies, that it is a harbinger of destruction coming from more planes. Likewise, when we read “The power in Anin went out,” we imagine we know why. We know what’s coming.
I am intentionally quoting only from the beginning of the book because the movement from hopeful, innocent summer to terrifying, world-shattering fall is worth experiencing on your own. It is worth experiencing because, in the face of the terror—bombs nearby, power outages, fleeing to safer areas—Michał continued with his school assignment. We can talk about hope and resilience, but the thing about Michał’s perseverance is that it demonstrates just how close we live to capital-H History. All of us, all the time. Sometimes in American culture we try to convince ourselves that History is made by Important People who are doing Impressive Things to make Powerful Change, which is patently false. One reason I’m so moved by Michał’s diary is that it reminds me that we are all a part of history. We make it, we live it, we experience it, we witness it. All of us. We are doing it now.
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker book is reminiscent of Kathryn Scanlan’s puzzling book Aug 9—Fog. Scanlan’s book is also a diary, though she didn’t write it. It’s a found text by an anonymous woman. Scanlan found the diary at an estate sale, then arranged and collaged the text resulting in the final book. Aug 9—Fog has a remarkable impact—I adored it when I first read it—but there’s something fuzzy about it in comparison to I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker. Scanlan’s book starts to feel a little artificial, where Michał Skibiński’s diary is presented to us unadulterated.
But of course that’s not true either: Ala Bankroft’s illustrations give further depth and weight to Michał’s sentences, they alter our reading of the sentences. The image that accompanies the sentence “A plane circled over Anin” is light in the middle, where your eye is first drawn to the plane on the left side of the spread. But then your eye is drawn across the page to the text, and the next thing you realize is that the edges of the painting are dark: leaves and branches shadowing one another, so that the longer you look, the darker the image appears. Just as the longer you meditate on the circling plane, the more sinister it becomes. By and large, Bankroft’s paintings get darker as the book goes on.
There is a single page of notes at the end of I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker that give further context to both the text and the book’s creation. We learn that “the sentence dated 29 August records the author’s last meeting with his father,” who was a pilot and bomber squadron leader. He died on September 9 in a plane crash. The notes also give some geographical context for readers unfamiliar with Warsaw and the surrounding area. Anin is “a residential area in the Wawer district, then adjacent to Warsaw.” This page also contains the publishing data—copyright, colophon, production information, and so on—all in very small text. It’s here that you can find the translator’s name. Eliza Marciniak, whose work allows us to read this incredible document in English, is named in just this one place. (Marciniak is also the English translator of Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017.)
On the back of the book is a grayscale photograph of a bald man wearing glasses and sitting in a chair with a plaid shirt or coat hung on the back of it. He is hunched over holding a book, and just visible in the shadows behind him are what appear to be shelves of books or perhaps photo albums. The text beneath this photograph says, “The picture shows the author holding his book in his hands for the first time.” Michał Skibiński, at the time of this writing, is still alive. Our history is still here, its witnesses still alive to tell us about it. One of the things I find so powerful about I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker is that it can teach us how to witness and record our own history as it happens, as it is happening. It can be as simple as writing a single sentence.