After its hardback release last year, Ewa Jozefkowicz’s Girl 38 has come to paperback and is a wonderful novel especially for children 11+ who may be experiencing similar struggles to protagonist Kat.
Girl 38 refers to a graphic novel character that our protagonist Kat is developing with a little inspiration from people around her, as Kat’s life changes so does the plot of Girl 38, especially as Kat’s life wobbles as she learns the problem with friendships that were based on proximity and convenience against basing your friendship on parity of heart.
This is a beautiful tale exploring both contemporary childhood and the experience of teenagers in Nazi occupied Europe and how bravery comes in many shapes and forms and is sometimes a quiet revolution of the heart.
Kat is discovering that being friends for life is a nice idea but not necessarily a nice reality, it depends on shared values and genuine affection. She has been best friends with Gemma since they made an agreement aged 3. But Gemma has grown to be controlling, manipulative and quite nasty using Kat to further her own wants and machinations, and Kat has always gone along because she believes that’s what friends do . But Kat begins to wobble when Gem takes a vicious dislike to new boy Julius and sets out to wreck his life, but never by her own hand.
Kat discovers what true friendship is by discovering the tale of her elderly Polish neighbour who took on the Nazis for the love of a friend and so Kat learns to stand up for herself and what is right.
I was always thinking about Gem. I cried and cried. I was scared of losing her…I thought it would be the same as ever-me and her- but no.
For every tale of friendships formed in the pushchair, or on the park swings, the first day of school or similar there are many stories of tears and frustrations as friendships fall apart when we get older and are found to have been based on tenuous links, sometimes of convenience rather than compatibility. Indeed, one wonders what kind of girl Kat would be and what school she would attend if Gemma had not heard her ask if she wanted to be friends, or she had had a tantrum and refused to go to nursery that day or, simply said no to Kat.
The friends we grow up with regardless of the good memories in the past are, sadly, not necessarily the friends that we NEED as we find who we are. We all know of a Gemma (yours may or may not be called something different), the girl who gets others to hurt her foes whilst she never seems to pull the trigger nor get in trouble herself, the puppet master of spitefulness.
I couldn’t sleep that night…the more I thought about this, the more I realised that I would never be remembered as brave or good. If anything it would be the opposite.
Kat is struggling with her feelings and her conscience, the fear of being without the only friend she’s ever known even though the friendship has stretched beyond recognition and Kat feels uncomfortable with Gem’s attitude and antics. This book is so powerful to recognise that and not demonise Kat for her dithering, for her fear of changing the status quo that could leave her friendless and completely at the mercy of Gem’s malice.
But it equally doesn’t ever allow us to think that what Kat is doing is right, readers can empathise but they may also be shouting at Kat to stop! This clever balance sees Kat beating herself up for her inability to act, for enabling Gem’s nastiness and her failure to stop it which reinforces to the young reader, if it doesn’t feel right, it’s most likely not.
it is a long story Katherine- a long and winding story.
Kat’s enlightenment is inspired by hearing the story of her elderly neighbour Ania’s teen years in Poland during World War II and what true friendship can inspire, the fighting spirit to jump off a train and take on an enemy army to find where your friend has been taken.
The beautiful dual narrative and oral storytelling is one facet that makes this book a wonderful immersive experience. Yet it is also drives the plot as the juxtaposition of Ania’s love for and friendship with her best friend and her courage in the face of terrible danger emboldens Kat’s resolve, that validating that feeling like change is the end of the world, really there is far worse that can be overcome with the power of the right friendship.
I’ll tell you a secret- bad people rarely regret what they’ve done, which means if you do, you aren’t a bad person
Kat’s friendship with Ania both reveals and nurtures Kat’s compassionate and kind side that she has had to neglect due to Gem, and it’s beautiful to see this intergenerational friendship blossom, grow and set its seed in others hearts too.
Overall this is a wonderful book that both explores the experience of young people in Nazi occupied Eastern Europe during WWII and gently probes the concept of friendship being something that evolves, changes, withers or blooms depending on the two people involved and their investments in the friendship and that although it’s hard, often, it’s healthier to let it go, grieve and move on than to dislike what it makes you.
Girl 38: Finding a Friend by Ewa Jozefkowicz is published by Zephyr and Head Of Zeus
Thank you so much for my copy 💜