This gem of a book interweaves three stories to create a rich portrait of friendship. Firstly we have Katherine’s story, that of a 12 year-old girl recognising that her lifelong friendship with Gem is toxic. In turn she is writing her own graphic story of the fearless, futuristic Girl 38, her domineering First Mate Hawkeye and their battles with their perceived enemy “The Vilk”. Thirdly, Katherine’s elderly neighbour Ania is recounting her war-time memories of Mila the friend from whom she was separated by the German soldiers who invaded her Polish village during WWII.
Katherine is an only child, the 12-year-old daughter of two doctors who work long hours. She spends her solitary hours writing and drawing her graphic novel, Girl 38. From the very earliest pages we realise that her friendship with Gem, which has endured since they were at nursery school together, is a totally one-sided affair. Gem speaks to her in a dismissive and hurtful way and we learn that Katherine dreads the sight of “the red spot” appearing on Gem’s cheek, signalling that she is angry about some perceived threat to her position.
When a new boy named Julius arrives in their form at the start of Year 8, Gem takes offence at his intelligence which threatens her position as top of the class, and his swimming skill which outshines her previous dominance in the pool. She sets up some very unpleasant tricks and, like all bullies, uses someone else to do her dirty work – in this case Kat, who she seems to manipulate with ease.
As Kat starts to feel overwhelmed by guilt at her behaviour whilst simultaneously feeling powerless to stand up to Gem, she unexpectedly begins to talk to her elderly next-door-neighbour. Ania Jankowski is a kind, gentle, elderly artist and slowly recounts the extraordinary tale of her childhood in wartime Poland. Can an example of historical courage and kindness have an impact on Katherine’s dilemma in modern Britain? You will have to read this intriguing book to find out!
Ewa Jozefkowicz has penned a wonderful tale, inspired by her own grandmother’s story which illustrates the lessons that we can all learn from history and examines friendship and courage on many levels. This would be an excellent addition to the WWII fiction collection in upper Key Stage 2; in my school I imagine it will have great appeal to the children of Polish descent as well as to their classmates who can gain an insight into the experience of war elsewhere in Europe. I loved the message contained within this story, that it is important “to search for kindness, for a little beam of light in the darkness”. A highly recommended book for children of 10 and above.