“Just a girl” by Jewish-Italian writer Lia Levi awarded by the American Library Association

“Just a Girl: A True Story of World War II ” by Jewish-Italian author Lia Levi was awarded, last week, the prestigious Mildred L. Batchelder Award by the American Library Association (ALA) which goes 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. Published in Italian as “Una bambina e basta. Raccontata agli altri bambini e basta”, the book – illustrated by Jess Mason and translated by Sylvia Notini – was published in March in the United States by Harpers Collins Publishers. The story adapts for children the award-winning memoir of the same name that in 1994 was her first novel and is the results of years of meetings in Italian schools by the author. The book tells the story of a Jewish girl growing up during a terrible time of racial discrimination and war who discovers light and joy in unexpected places.
The year is 1938. Lia is six years old, loves to build sandcastles at the beach, and her main problem is her shyness. Her life dramatically changes when the fascist racial laws expel Jewish children from school, forbid Jews to vacationing and prevent her father from working. As the family must give up their home and move from city to city, Lia questions start to multiplicate.
What does it matter to Mussolini if some children go to school and others do not? Why cannot nanny Maria stay with them anymore? Why can’t she just be a child, just a child? As prime minister Mussolini joins forces with Hitler in World War II and war comes closer, it is too dangerous for them to stay together, and Lia and her sisters are sent to hide at a Catholic boarding school. Separated from her parents and everything she knows and loves, little Lia must find a way to survive.
Based on Lia Levi’s own story, “Just a girl” is a powerful tale that recounts the experience of a Jewish Italian child uprooted by war through the voice of a girl. Her feelings about school, friend, and new teachers, speak to children’s interest without unduly focusing on her pain or more horrific details.
“Lia Levi adds her girlhood voice – so spunky, outspoken, and innocent – to the great children’s choir of Holocaust narratives. These voices, fewer each year, remind us of what was lost and what was learned”, writes Lois Lowry, author of Number the Stars.
Lia Levi was born in Pisa on November 9, 1931, to a Jewish family of Piedmontese origins. After the promulgation of the Fascist racial laws in 1938, her family left northern Italy and found refuge in Rome. Levi remained in Rome, where after WWII she completed her studies in philosophy and became a successful journalist. For more than thirty years she has directed the Jewish monthly magazine Shalom.
She is best known as the author of several works of fiction largely dedicated to Jewish themes. Her first novel, Una bambina e basta (Just a Child), was awarded the Elsa Morante Prize in 1994.
Her books, in which historical events are narrated for adults and children, convey to readers a strong sense of confidence both in the act of writing and the possibility of transmitting the memory of the past to new generations. “Just a girl”, which in Italy has a sequel released in January and titled “Tutto quello che non avevo capito. Una bambina e basta cresce” (Everything I did not understand. Just a girl grows up), is the first children book authored by Lia Levi published in the US, where she already published two novels: “Tonight is already tomorrow (2018)” and “The Jewish Husband” (2001).