From the cov­er of A Ceil­ing Made of Eggshells

We spoke to Gail Car­son Levine, author of A Ceil­ing Made of Eggshells, on June 10th as part of our JBC Authors at the Table series — you can watch the thir­ty minute chat here. Check out below some ques­tions we did­n’t have time for and keep the con­ver­sa­tion going. See the whole line­up for JBC Authors at the Table.

I loved that you added Christo­pher Colum­bus into the sto­ry — can you talk about how and why you includ­ed him in this story?

At first my edi­tor wor­ried that Colum­bus’s inclu­sion was a lit­tle too con­ve­nient, but I told her that he was there at the fall of Mála­ga, lob­by­ing for his first voy­age. Isaac Abra­vanel, upon whom Belo is loose­ly based, was there, too. Don Isaac and Colum­bus could actu­al­ly have met, since he was look­ing for back­ers, but I could­n’t find any record of a meet­ing. When she learned the his­to­ry, my edi­tor was delight­ed that Colum­bus could have a cameo.

A Ceil­ing Made of Eggshells is most­ly seri­ous, but the Colum­bus scene is light­heart­ed. I want­ed to give my read­ers a break, and I had fun invent­ing a big per­son­al­i­ty for him.

Loma was lucky that her fam­i­ly was so wealthy and pow­er­ful and able to real­ly help the Jew­ish peo­ple of the time. It gave amaz­ing insight into a world many of us might not have thought about. Why did you choose to set your book inside Loma’s fam­i­ly, from Loma’s perspective?

I could have writ­ten about a poor fam­i­ly dur­ing that time, since most Jew­ish fam­i­lies were poor by the late fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry — taxed into pover­ty to finance the wars to con­sol­i­date Spain under Chris­t­ian rule. But the men in a promi­nent, wealthy fam­i­ly would have a big­ger per­spec­tive and might be on the spot for the great events. Since I was writ­ing for kids, I need­ed a child pro­tag­o­nist, so I invent­ed Loma and cre­at­ed the cir­cum­stances that made her grand­fa­ther grow attached to her.

Loma has a neck­lace from her grand­moth­er that she believes pro­tects her from harm. And she makes neck­laces for all her nieces and nephews, her lit­tles, as she calls them, to keep them safe. Can you talk a lit­tle bit about that, and how we might see that as super­sti­tious, but then was a much more nor­mal idea?

Not every­body at the time believed in the effi­ca­cy of amulets. Mai­monides, for one, did­n’t, but oth­er renowned rab­bis did. Loma’s father is dubi­ous. I’m not sure how much stock Loma her­self puts in them. Still, she’s so wor­ried about the lit­tles that she wants to give them every shred of pro­tec­tion she can.

The research you did must have been exten­sive, and I was shocked to read about how force­ful and fre­quent con­ver­sion was, espe­cial­ly for chil­dren — can you talk a bit about that? 

Some­times the con­ver­sion of chil­dren was a tac­tic to bring about the con­ver­sion of the child’s rel­a­tives. That’s what I set up near the end of the book when Loma is impris­oned short­ly before all the Jews have to leave Spain. His­tor­i­cal­ly, this was done to Jews who fled to Por­tu­gal after the expul­sion. Chil­dren were tak­en from their par­ents and bap­tized. The fam­i­lies could be reunit­ed only if the par­ents con­vert­ed. (Even­tu­al­ly, all the Jews of Por­tu­gal were forced to con­vert en masse, which led to the Por­tuguese term for them: bap­tized Jews.”)

I can’t explain the urgency behind the attempts to con­vert, but Mus­lims also suf­fered from it and have their own trag­ic his­to­ry in Spain before they, too, were expelled.

Gail Car­son Levine has pub­lished twen­ty-five books for chil­dren. She is best known for her New­bery Hon­or book Ella Enchant­ed. Her oth­er Jew­ish-themed his­tor­i­cal nov­el, Dave at Night, is loose­ly based on her father’s child­hood in the Hebrew Orphan Asy­lum. Most of her books are fan­ta­sy nov­els, but she has two pic­ture books and two how-to’s about writ­ing, also for children.