I first heard about Gino Bartali on a dreary Saturday afternoon. Snuggled beneath a blanket and clutching a cup of hot tea, I watched a documentary about the secret underground during World War II. This network of ordinary people rose to the occasion amid extraordinary circumstances.
One of those individuals was anything but ordinary.
I leaned forward, mesmerized, as they told the story of 1938 Tour de France champion Gino Bartali, who delivered forged identification papers to convents and monasteries where Jewish Italians were hiding. He did it by rolling up the papers and tucking them inside the hollow bars of his bicycle! The Nazis thought he was training every day. He even stopped to sign autographs for them. It was a fantastic story, and I just knew kids would love it. I could see the page turns in my future picture book and how their eyes would bug out like mine did as they learned about him.
I set down my tea and started madly googling. Had anyone else written about him yet? No. I did a deep dive into researching his underground work. It was difficult because he was a man who thought that good deeds must be done in secret. Now I had a problem. How was I going to find out what this champion for human rights did not want anyone to know?
I spent the next three years digging. I read article after article about where he delivered papers and who saw him, including a little boy in Assisi who remembers Gino giving him a ride on his handlebars to avoid detection by a nearby guard. I read a book titled Road to Valor that detailed every step of his journey. It was carefully researched with pages of sources in the back of the book. I found those sources and read them, too. But this book was fictionalized. There was no real dialogue. I needed primary sources!
I had to go to Italy.
First, I went to The Gino Bartali Museum. They had dozens of newspaper articles there, but they were all in Italian! I took pictures of them anyway, but they were of no use. A docent explained that Gino won the Tour de France in honor of his younger brother Julio who was struck and killed by a car while cycling. Although this was important information as I built his character in my book, it did not help me verify the secret work he did.
Then the docent led me around the corner to the Friends of Gino Bartali Association office. We stepped inside and sitting at a desk was an elderly man whose older brother had been a friend of Gino Bartali’s. This man’s name was Andrea Bresci. Andrea spoke very little English, and Google Translate was cumbersome. I was about to thank him politely and leave when his son walked in. Maurizio spoke perfect English! It was a miracle. Maurizio played videos of Gino Bartali giving speeches and translated them for me. Now I was getting closer, but Gino, remember, did not like to boast. He said very little about his secret work, even in his speeches!
Next, I went to the convent in Assisi where he had delivered the ID papers. I walked along the roads he pedaled down and saw the printing press they used to print the false ID papers. After spending so much time with Gino, this was an emotional moment for me. I snapped so many photos the memory in my phone filled up and I had to buy new cloud storage!
After that, I contacted Gino’s granddaughter Lisa Bartali. Lisa had spent years tracking down primary sources to corroborate every word her grandfather said and every heroic deed. Finally, I had found my research gold mine! Texting back and forth with Lisa was difficult, but we made it work. Then I shared my manuscript with her. She said there was only one thing she could not verify—and it was the climax of the story!
Without the ability to prove the climactic moment of Gino’s story was true, even though it PROBABLY was, I had to rewrite the story. Lisa approved the new version, saying, “This time (it) is faithful to Gino’s life.” It was difficult to tell my editor the story had to change, but we have an even stronger book now with no possible errors in it.
Gino once said to his son Andrea: “These are tough times. … A life can hang by a thread. It’s a world where you must do good. But don’t talk about it.”
Before he died, Andrea said: “‘Dad, why are you telling me this if I can’t tell anyone?’ And he told me, ‘someday you will find the right moment to talk about it.’ ”
I believe this is that moment.
Megan Hoyt first fell in love with reading on a cozy branch of the crabapple tree outside her Texas home. Her debut picture book biography and winner of the 2017 SCBWI Work in Progress Award, Bartali’s Bicycle, is coming out in early 2021 with Harper Collins Children’s Books’ new imprint, Quill Tree Books. Her poem, “Thanksgiving by the Lake,” appears in the Millbrook Press anthology Thanku: Poems of Gratitude (2019), and her graded reader, Clara O’Hara, Private Eye (TCM) is available now. Her first picture book, Hildegard’s Gift, came out in 2014. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @meganhoytwrites.