Sonderbooks Book Review of

Just a Girl

A True Story of World War II

Lia Levi

with pictures by Jess Mason

translated from Italian by Sylvia Notini

Just a Girl

A True Story of World War II

by Lia Levi
with pictures by Jess Mason
translated from Italian by Sylvia Notini

Review posted October 21, 2023.
Harper, 2022. Originally published in Italy in 2020.
Review written February 24, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review
2023 Mildred Batchelder Award Winner

The Mildred Batchelder Award is given every year to a children's book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States. It's given to the publisher, to encourage them to find and translate such books.

Just a Girl is a gently told early chapter book about a terrible time. The author Lia Levi was a girl living in Italy in 1938, having just finished first grade. The book begins as she's told she won't be able to go back to school this year, but will have to go to a Jewish school.

As the war progresses in Italy, her father loses his job. They think things will get better after Mussolini is put out of power, but then the Germans come and things get worse. Lia and her sisters have to hide in a convent boarding school and use fake last names.

The author does a good job of telling about bad things, but also reassuring the reader with insertions as her older self. She does acknowledge that she was luckier than many others and does highlight the unfairness of her family being targeted for who they were. And through all of the story, the worries and troubles are punctuated with stories of kids finding ways to have a good time.

And in the last chapter (I don't think this is a spoiler.), she wrote a letter to a radio station and began with, "I am a Jewish girl." She was surprised when her mother tore it up.

What terrible mistake could I have made? And even if I had made a mistake, couldn't we have fixed it?

Mama's face isn't serious, though.

Now she's happily tossing all those bits and ripped-up pieces of paper everywhere as though they were confetti at Mardi Gras.

"You're not a Jewish girl," she says, smiling. "You're a girl. Just a girl."

What's this all about? For years now, they've been shouting and writing female student of Jewish race next to my name everywhere.

I know perfectly well that the laws against the Jews have been repealed. But what is this about not being a Jewish girl?

Mama laughs.

"You're mixing things up. Of course you're still Jewish," she says. Then her face gets very serious and she tries to explain. "You're Jewish, but that's something personal. It doesn't need to be a label you wear on your forehead. You're Jewish, you have two sisters, you go to school, you like going to the movies. . . . These are all facts about you. If you want to, you can tell others, but only if you choose to. These facts are no longer of any importance to the State, to the authorities. They have to let you go to school, to the gym, to the library, to your tennis or dance lesson, without saying: she can, but she can't; he can, but he can't."

A lovely story that gives a gentle way for young children to learn about discrimination.