A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Poetry of Secrets is a historical novel, told from the perspective of a Jewish family who hides their faith and culture from the Inquisitors of 15th century Spain. Medieval themes of forced conversion, mass expulsion, torture, ghettoization of Jewish neighborhoods, and intolerance play prominently. Though not rendered in a gory manner, people are called swine, burned at the stake, and tortured because they are not part of the dominant culture. Mixed-blood people are said to "taint" the pure bloodline of the Christians, and their presence in society is sought to be exterminated. There is mention of "faking" Christianity and that it means nothing to a young man who does so because he identifies as a Jew. Teen characters kiss, long to "lay" with each other. The father in the story is a wine merchant, and wine and brandy are drunk in his home and commonly among everyday people.
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What's the story?
In THE POETRY OF SECRETS by Cambria Gordon, Isabel Perez is a teen girl whose passion in life is writing poetry. Not only does she have to keep the fact that she is "lettered" and can read a secret, but also a bigger, more dangerous secret threatens the well-being of her family. As "New Christians," her parents are looked upon suspiciously by the townspeople of Trujillo, Spain, where they live. Though she, her parents, and her sister were baptized at birth, the "Old Christians" suspect them of being untrue to the church and judaizing at home in secret. This isn't incorrect -- the Perezes do practice Judaism in the sanctity of their home. But Isabel wonders if that is really so wrong. Why can't people believe what they want if they aren't hurting anyone else? Her secret lives are putting herself and her family in danger. When she meets a handsome stranger, she collects another secret, a burning desire to be seen as she is: as a young woman, poet, as a free spirit, and as a Jew.
Is it any good?
Rich in historical and romantic detail, this story has pacing issues that keep it from being sublime. The Poetry of Secrets gives so much in historical accuracy, but it ends without the big fireworks that a romantic novel should provide. The focus on history feels distracting at times, if only because the romantic partners start out so lushly detailed. Their chance meeting tingles with possibility, and their journey is full of obstacles and twists. Their story is the heart of this story.
But there's more emphasis on the details of life in 15th century Spain and less in the weaving of the love story. Teens might feel a little let down by these priorities. But from a historical point of view, The Poetry of Secrets provides lovingly rendered cultural alleyways to follow. Jewish life in Medieval Spain is illuminated, complete with the conflicts, the toil, and the secrets.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about tolerance and how intolerance is shown in The Poetry of Secrets. What does it mean to be tolerant of other cultures? How does it make you feel when you see intolerance in shows you watch -- or in the news?
Isabel and her family act one way in public, but hide the rituals they perform at home, for fear of persecution. Is it possible to live in two worlds? How do we behave privately and publicly today?
Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, tells members of a congregation that they should not trust their neighbors. How have things changed? What do you see in the news?
- Author: Cambria Gordon
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Topics: Arts and Dance, Brothers and Sisters, History
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Scholastic Press
- Publication date: February 2, 2021
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 12 - 18
- Number of pages: 416
- Available on: Nook, Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: March 2, 2021
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