Girl 38 is a comic-strip character created by Kat. Kat has to make some difficult choices at school when the new boy, Julius, inadvertently upsets her ‘best friend’; meanwhile, Kat’s elderly neighbour, Ania, has an important story to tell, but only to those who will listen. When Ania decides that Kat needs to hear what happened to her during the Second World War, the tale has life-changing effects.
Many books have bullying as a central theme; there are also many that deal with people and stories of the Second World War. But the telling, re-telling and listening to stories in Girl 38 ties the two themes together in a fresh way to produce a novel which eloquently explores what friendship means and what sacrifices and acts of courage need to be made when you genuinely care about someone, regardless of age or time. Fear of ‘difference’, too, is a significant issue in the book: the cruelty and selfishness shown by some of the characters becomes quite horrifyingly pitiless as the novel progresses. But the ‘light’ of others, fortunately, balances the darkness of these characters, and the ending ties up everything in a satisfying way.
The mirroring of stories through Ania, Kat and Girl 38 herself is what makes this book such a thought-provoking read. Ania’s storytelling – that most human of things we can do – addresses Kat’s issues at school and later is reflected in the younger girl’s comic-book-making. How we develop personally, socially and culturally depends on listening to stories – listening to histories – Jozefkowicz is saying. Mirroring Ania’s story with Kat’s issues, Josefkowicz beautifully illustrates the importance of learning from past (and also – sadly – that some human beings don’t always pay attention to the implications of what has happened before).
This book would work very well as a class novel for children aged 11 years+. Issues in the book support many units of work in PSHE concerning friendship, bullying and cultural differences, and discussions around a wide variety of questions would develop naturally: is it better to do what you think is right, or what ‘the group’ think? Should a friend insist on what you decide? How do you welcome new people into your life? What differences are there between you and others? Additionally, the European, social and cultural perspectives provided in Girl 38 will add a deeper dimension to the children’s knowledge of the period and their historical questioning.
Although this is a short novel, its impact is strong: the language is clear, the storytelling direct, and its message easily related to young people’s lives. Recommended.
You might like to listen to our podcast with Ewa Josefkowwicz
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