It is 1946, the beginning of the new school year, and a teacher invites her class to share their projects. Solly’s project is about his Polish cousin Bernie and the letters they exchanged throughout the war. As he shares these letters with his classmates, we are taken back to 1939, the beginning of the second world war, and the different wartime experiences of the two cousins unfold.
Solly, a city child, finds himself evacuated to a farm spending his time collecting eggs and learning to milk a cow. Later returning to London he witnesses the bomb damage and experiences rationing. Bernie lives in West Poland. He is also sent away at the beginning of the war to escape the Nazi invasion in the Russian occupied East of the country. But he is soon sent to a harsh labour camp. Later he finds himself fighting with the Polish armed forces against the Nazi invaders.
The cousins’ letters include key wartime events, for example The Battle of Britain and The Battle of Monte Cassino. On the home front Solly describes news of the Bethnal Green underground station disaster. The closeness of the cousins, their concern for each other and need to share their experiences shines through the letters. Tension mounts as Bernie is in constant danger and his worries about his family increase.
This book is based on the true story of Michael Rosen’s cousin, Michael Rechnic. Although the reality of war is present, including the appalling fate of Jewish people and others in Nazi death camps, there are lighter touches too, for example, the adoption of a bear called Wotjek by the Polish troops (a true story). There is unsurprisingly sadness in the cousins’ stories but the book ends on a positive note and readers can be hopeful that they might once again able to go to football matches together.
This is a poignant and engaging book which could provide an interesting introduction to the experiences of young people across Europe during the last world war. Michael Foreman’s beautiful illustrations complement the text perfectly. He deftly uses soft line and wash – monochrome with just a hint of colour – significantly poppy red.
The back of the book includes an afterword from Lt General James Bashall. He links the stories and experiences with Remembrance Day throughout the world and this would indeed be a perfect time to share this book with children. A contribution goes to the Royal British legion poppy appeal with each sale of the book.