Newbery-winning author mines family history in new tale

Explore the life of Sephardi Jews during and after the Spanish Inquisition in Gail Carson Levine's new book.

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Much of children's and young adult literature in this country relating to the Jewish experience has focused on three or four subjects: the Jewish immigrant experience in the United States, the Holocaust, the formation of the State of Israel, and the question of "otherness"--that is, Jewish youth in small-town America who must struggle with antisemitism or differentness in a majority gentile culture.

Prolific children's book author Gail Carson Levine is expanding the genre. Best known for her first book, the Newbery Award-winning Ella Enchanted -- a retelling of the Cinderella fable adapted to the silver screen with Anne Hathaway in 2004 -- Levine has just published A Ceiling Made of Eggshells (Harper), which centers on the Sephardic Jews of Spain during the Inquisition in the late 15th century.

In her protagonist Paloma, the author has created a strong female voice--a clever-girl-turned-young-woman. Working alongside her sagacious grandfather, Don Joseph Cantala -- a character loosely based on the medieval Jewish scholar, statesman, and financier Isaac Abravanel -- she perseveres in her quest to save the Jews of Spain from the worst of the inquisitors' crimes against them, including forced conversions to Christianity, executions, and expulsion from their land.  

And in Eggshells , Levine does not shy away in describing some of the most egregious crimes against the Jews of the Spain, who, historians estimate, numbered around 400,000 at the time of the Inquisition and accounted for six or seven percent of the country's population. 

Levine said that she owes a debt of gratitude to scholars of Sephardic history, including Jane S. Gerber of the City University of New York, whose book The Jews of Spain, A History of the Sephardic Experience, was an invaluable source. In her acknowledgements, Levine said that Gerber helped her maintain a high level of authenticity.

But Eggshells, intended for middle-school readers and up, was far more than a scholarly endeavor for Levine. It was also a personal journey and "a long time coming," she said.

Her father, the late David Carson, was descended from a long line of Sephardic Jews from the island of Salonika, or Thessaloniki, which was originally part of the Ottoman Empire but subsequently became part of Greece. His family name was Carasso, but he changed his name to Carson to become more absorbed into American culture.

"My father had a very bad childhood," Levine said. He spent much of his youth in New York's Hebrew Orphan Asylum--Levine's Dave at Night is an imagined narrative of his experiences there--and he was loath to speak about it or much of his family history. Educated in the school of hard knocks, he was able to retain a joyous and charming demeanor and went on to establish a successful commercial art studio.

By the time Levine wanted to learn more about the Carasso clan (also the family name of the Dannon Yogurt founder, Isaac Carasso, whom she speculates is a distant relative), both her father and mother had died. She embarked on a rigorous study of both the Hebrew and Christian bibles, reading them "like a savage," she said, and devoured as many histories of Sephardic Jews as she could. 

This research was necessary, she said, because, "I had very little religious education," though she had grown up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the 1950s and early 1960s--Upper Manhattan's Washington Heights--and went to temple with her family on the High Holidays.

Levine, who lives in the New York's Hudson River Valley with her husband, David Levine, a programmer and photographer, said that her work on Eggshells led her to "feel more Jewish," adding that "my understanding of Judaism is very much deepened."

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago. 


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