By – November 20, 2023

This illus­trat­ed nov­el for young read­ers is a com­pact intro­duc­tion to the lives of Por­tu­gal and Spain’s secret Jews. Set in Lis­bon in the ear­ly six­teenth cen­tu­ry, The Inside Name fol­lows one con­ver­so fam­i­ly as they take mea­sures to con­ceal their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and keep them­selves safe. Like many Sephardic Jews, Felipe Alonso’s grand­fa­ther flees per­se­cu­tion in Spain and set­tles in Por­tu­gal, only to find that the Inqui­si­tion is enforc­ing the same pol­i­cy of forced con­ver­sion in his new home. The dan­gers of secret­ly prac­tic­ing Judaism force Felipe’s fam­i­ly to seek refuge else­where, in a land where Felipe can reclaim the secret Hebrew name that rep­re­sents his true identity.

Felipe is able to escape the rigid con­fines of his dual life by pre­tend­ing he is a king. He imag­ines for him­self a fairy-tale world in which the Tagus Riv­er gleams like a blue satin rib­bon dot­ted with the white sails of mer­chant ships.” By apply­ing painter­ly touch­es to the ordi­nary speech of a child, Ran­di Sonen­shine cap­tures the par­tic­u­lar way that Felipe incor­po­rates fan­ta­sy into his dai­ly life. Her lan­guage is both rich with metaphor and high­ly accessible.

Although the main char­ac­ters are fic­tion­al, the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure of Doña Gra­cia Nasi plays a key behind-the-scenes role. Felipe’s par­ents explain to him how the coura­geous Jew­ish woman uses her wealth and influ­ence to help her peo­ple in their quest for free­dom. A two-page map, clear­ly labeled and dec­o­rat­ed with ships sail­ing on their course, antic­i­pates the family’s immi­nent jour­ney to a haven in Italy. Else­where in the book, unob­tru­sive text box­es pro­vide impor­tant infor­ma­tion and vocab­u­lary. The author bal­ances his­to­ry, dra­ma, and char­ac­ter devel­op­ment to cre­ate an excit­ing tale with a sat­is­fy­ing res­o­lu­tion. Only on the book’s final page is Felipe’s true name revealed.

Reflect­ing on his time in Por­tu­gal, Felipe remem­bers his friend, Solomon, whose name alludes to an era when Jew­ish lead­er­ship was not just a dream. Before Felipe left, Solomon gave him the gift of a chess set. Felipe decid­ed to hide the set’s two kings in a secret location.

Com­plete with an infor­ma­tive after­word, this book will give read­ers a vivid sense of the sur­vival strate­gies that enabled at least some Iber­ian Jews to remem­ber their inside names.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

Ear­ly chap­ter books with Jew­ish themes are hard to find. This excel­lent his­tor­i­cal nov­el about secret Jews in Por­tu­gal dur­ing the Inqui­si­tion is a well-told sto­ry for chil­dren who enjoy read­ing about his­to­ry and far­away places. 

Young Felipe Alon­so has both an inside” and an out­side” name. Felipe is the name he uses to nav­i­gate the world of anti-Jew­ish Lis­bon in the ear­ly six­teenth cen­tu­ry. He and his fam­i­ly long to live freely in a more tol­er­ant coun­try. His moth­er tries not to use his out­side name in gen­er­al, and just whis­tles for him instead. His inside name is kept secret from the read­er until the family’s escape to Bel­gium, which is facil­i­tat­ed by La Seño­ra (aka the famous phil­an­thropist Doña Gra­cia Nasi). The author pro­vides a vivid sense of place, fam­i­ly, and the dan­gers of con­ver­so life. Read­ers will be sur­prised to learn who is will­ing to help. 

The bright water­col­or illus­tra­tions beau­ti­ful­ly reflect the his­tor­i­cal era and the emo­tion­al atmos­phere of the nar­ra­tive. And the use­ful map of the family’s escape will delight map-lov­ing kids.