Last month in this very blog we covered the annual Youth Media Awards, presented by the American Library Association (ALA). Alongside the well-known Caldecott and the Newbery medals, the ALA also announced this year's Mildred L. Batchelder Award, given to an outstanding "children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States."
That mouthful of a description aside, this year's Batchelder Award winner is the wonderful Italian middle grade memoir Just a Girl: A True Story of World War II. Translated by Sylvia Adrian Notini, this middle grade memoir is author Lia Levi's recounting of her childhood in Italy during the Second World War. Illustrated by Jess Mason, this book is a sensitive, age-appropriate, and authentic narrative that deserves ready inclusion into the canon of young people's literature about the Holocaust.
As the book opens, Lia is six years old and lives with her family in Turin. While on vacation to the seaside, Lia's Mama tells her that she will not be able to go back to school because "Mussolini doesn't want Jewish children in Italian schools." The whole thing sounds ridiculous to Lia. But under Italy's racial laws, Lia's Papa is soon forced out of his job, eventually leading the family to move from city-to-city in search of employment and shelter.
While Lia trying to make sense of all that is happening around her, Italy officially enters the war on the side of the Axis powers in 1940. Its several military defeats lead to the removal of Mussolini and its surrender to the Allies in 1943. In retaliation, Germany occupied northern and central Italy, and in the fall of that year, began deportations of Jews living in those areas, including Rome, where the Levi family is now living.
By then Lia, her younger sisters, and their mother are hiding in a convent boarding school, living under assumed names. As the book continues, Lia tells of her life in the convent. There are many girls and not enough food for all of them. But there are instances of happiness, like her friendship with Pina, a brilliant girl from Sicily, and getting to perform in a school play.
Eventually – finally – the war ends. Lia and her family are able to return to their house in Turin. She no longer has to give an account of her Jewish heritage to the State or the authorities. She is "just a girl."
While this is an account of a childhood under fascism and threatened by genocide (let's not mince words here), Lia Levi's retelling of her childhood story is never graphic; the author's sensitivity toward young readers abounds. For example: there are written asides from a now adult Lia explaining certain events, assuaging suspense, or reassuring readers that some things actually worked out for the good. While designated as a middle grade book, this book is appropriate even for readers in elementary or primary school. It's only 139 pages long and illustrated to boot! The text is highly accessible and conversational, and the illustrations are friendly and even sweet.
This is an ideal shared read-aloud for parents and school age children or for use in a classroom unit on the Holocaust. The 21st century resurgence of fascism in the United States, for example, makes all the more pressing the need to teach young people in age-appropriate ways the dangers of scapegoating minority groups in the name of "purity" and "strength." Although an adult Lia Levi describes her story as "just a bad memory now," the truth is it is anything but past.
One of the most powerful and timely scenes of the book takes place within its first few pages. Following her mother's announcement about school, Lia's Papa tries to explain that sometimes when things don't work very well in a country, its leaders may blame those problems on people who are different. This can even make people happy "because they know who to be angry with." As young as Lia is, she makes the connection between what her father is saying, her mother's news, and Mussolini, Italy's fascist dictator.
Mr. Levi's words still ring with truth today. An adult Lia writes: "Racism continues to stain society today. It exists in your country, too, perhaps in many different forms. This is why it’s important for you to condemn these outbreaks and fight against racism with all the strength of your young age." These are words for all children – and adults – to know and emulate.