A winter’s day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik (Scholastic, 2013)
24 chapters; 285 pages
Subjects: World War Two; Poland; family; evacuees, refugees; junior fiction (Year 7-10)
I should have reviewed this book before, because it is so good and has collected lots of awards and shortlistings: Storylines Notable Book 2014, Finalist 2014 NZ Post Book Awards, Finalist 2014 LIANZA Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award, Winner Librarian’s Choice Award 2014 LIANZA Children’s Book Awards
Melinda explains in the foreword that A winter’s day in 1939 is based on the story of her father, Leszek Szymanik, who was 12 when the Soviet Red Army invaded his homeland of Poland in 1939. His family was transported from Poland to a Russian labour camp in 1940.
The family in the book are Adam, his parents, older brother Tomasz and younger sisters Zofia and Maria. They live on a small farm, growing crops (tobacco, potatoes) and raising cows, pigs and chickens. Tragedy strikes the family at the very start of the story, followed by uncertainty and worry as Germany invades Poland – and then the Russian tanks arrive. Their farm is requisitioned (taken over by the Russians) and they are given a week to leave and find a new home – one room in a house in a village 15km away.
Things get worse, not better, and more long hard journeys, and much sadness, lie ahead of them.
Melinda includes a historical note, a map of the family’s journey, glossary, bibliography and a postscript about what happened next. Her foreword ends: “The past is filled with stories like these, of people who suffered terrible conditions and overwhelming sadness but remained hopeful and survived, despite everything. It is up to us to honour their memories and remember this stories to make the world a better place.”
I’m lucky to have a signed copy, and Melinda has written this in the front of my book: “We have to know the past to make a better future.”
Booksellers NZ comments that “Melinda is a very skilled observer of family relationships, and this is what really brings the book to a higher level”.
Hooked on NZ books has links to a whole collection of reviews.
Teacher notes from Scholastic here.
About the author
Melinda has a great blog where she talks about all sort of writing issues and the writing life. In this blog post, she talks about how she came to write the book.
You can read more about Melinda here.
Other books you might like:
Stefania’s dancing slippers by Jennifer Beck tells another story of a Polish refugee family in picture book format.
New Zealand connection
Of course there is a very real NZ connection in this case, because Melinda’s father ended up here, and so did over 700 Polish children who came out by ship and went to the Polish children’s camp at Pahiatua. It’s hard for us as an island nation to imagine what it must be like to live in a country that is surrounded by other nations and has been the site of conflict for centuries.
In November 2014, there was a series of events to mark the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Polish children at Pahiatua. You can read more about the “Polish Week” anniversary here.
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think.