Award winning, well-loved author Jackie French was named Senior Australian of the Year in 2015. In 2016 she became a member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to children’s literature and advocacy for youth literacy. With this latest book entitled Just a Girl, she has now written the story that she has always longed to write since she was a young girl. 

The beauty and wonder of the traditional nativity story, which is captivating for children and adults alike, shines brightly in this book.  But it is not only about the nativity story – it is about five young refugees who flee their homeland when the Roman army invades. 

Both children and adults will gain insight into the relatively unknown life of Mary of Nazareth through the memories told by an old great-grandmother in a cave round a campfire. This is a brilliant narrative technique allowing the reader to enter into an imaginative journey back in time. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Just a Girl and was carried along with the story of the main characters as they lived life in all its richness and difference in the first century AD.

The main character is a feisty young Jewish heroine called Judith who lives around 71 AD in Judea. Not your typical good housekeeping sort of girl, Judith carries a sling-shot to hunt for her family’s dinner, aspires to be a learned writer and interpreter of the law, and develops a friendship with a young Roman ex-slave called Caius. Judith has to work out which of her potential suitors she prefers – one who views her as ‘just a girl’ or one who appreciates her family and aspirations.

The adventure part of the story is about how Judith and her Jewish sisters survive in a hideout cave after Judith’s town has been pillaged. Judith’s mother has been murdered and her sisters carried off by the Roman army. Her great-grandmother is now an old woman facing ill health and suffering in the cave as she struggles to live out her last days in hiding.

Teachers and parents will find much fertile ground for discussion in the story with additional author’s notes which should prompt questions and themes for discussion. It is obvious how much careful thought and preparation has been put into the research of this section. Girls reading the novel can ask themselves how they feel about betrothal customs. They can observe the Jewish betrothal customs, which were strict but were never forced if the girl objected (Judith makes her own free choice.), the nature of true friendship and slavery versus freedom by observing the lives of Judith and Caius.

Author notes also state that there was disagreement amongst Christians about what to believe in these early times.  The author reminds us that this is often forgotten – the many conflicts among Christians about what one ‘ought to believe.’ This prompts further questions for discussion such as: “Was Jesus a prophet or a Messiah come to save Judea? Was he a son of God, or The Son of God?” “Did Christians who hadn’t been born Jewish have to follow all the Jewish laws?” “Were the teachings of Jesus for Jewish people only?” p.238 

Other cultures may also have influenced Judith’s mostly Jewish village. 

What stands out as the story progresses is that the Roman slave, Caius, and Judith really thirst to find out more information about Mary of Nazareth. However, like a broken radio signal, the story of Mary is scanty and though no formal record exists to this day, much can be deduced form the Gospels and the time in which she lived. Wisdom, it is said, consists in knowing how much one does not know – and this has been embodied in the characters of the story.  Caius had heard bits about Christianity from his parents who used to tell him stories about Jesus and Mary.  Like any person shackled by slavehood conditions, he urgently wants to know more about this mysterious message of freedom for slaves, and love for all mankind, treating others as one would treat oneself. To me this was a hopeful and great message in the book.

The notes  also give further accurate information about sources for the story, possible bias in historians’ accounts, food that Judith would likely have eaten in 71 AD, betrothal customs, information about the Mikra and what it is, likely languages of Aramaic and Koine, difficulties with translation, and an openly honest section on Jackie French’s own religious beliefs.

French  points out that this is not a story about her own religious beliefs, nor is it a story about religion or theology, as most of the religions in 71 AD  were so different from today. Jesus’ parables and teachings were deeply valued and respected  in 71 AD but still had not been formed into the formal structure and beliefs we know today as Christianity.

The founder of Islam had of course not yet been born.  Buddhism was still developing after the death of Siddhartha Gautama. French says: “For all of you who follow her (Mary’s) example, no matter what your religion, or lack of religion: you are never just a girl.” p. 231.

The book is attractively presented with purple cover highlighting a gold star of Jerusalem shining out brightly.

It is my hope that this book will be shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year for Junior Fiction. The quality of historical research is excellent, the characters are rounded and experience growth and development. The story is original, absorbing and inspiring. I hope the book will not be ignored or stereotyped as ‘just another religious story’ – because it is not and clearly has so much more to offer.

Jane Fagan is a children's librarian with a B.A. (University of Melbourne) and a Grad. Dip. Library and Info Studies (Melbourne).