An Interview with Carolyn Meyer about Isabel: Jewel of Castilla

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti: This is your first book in the Royal Diary series. How did the writing of Isabel's diary differ from creating your other historical fiction novels?

Carolyn Meyer: I didn't realize how hard it would be to tell Isabel's story in diary form! In my other novels the main character narrates his or her own story already knowing how it all turns out in the end. But the character who is telling a story through a diary can know only what has just happened, and not what will happen tomorrow, or next month, or next year. So it's a much harder job for the author to set up the diary entries to create a story that's exciting and involving for the reader.

RFA & LMP: In your research, did you find much evidence of Isabel's education? Did she receive formal tutoring in reading, writing, history, geography, and numbers? Who were the powerful influences in her intellectual life?

CM: Isabel had a poor education. She learned to read and write, probably from her mother. She was taught to embroider by the nuns at a local convent, who also gave her religious instruction. But she spoke French poorly, if at all; she learned no Latin; she didn't study history or mathematics or science. This was because Spanish girls were thought to be inferior to boys, morally and intellectually. To let girls study philosophy or geometry, for instance, would weaken their frail moral fiber! Later, when Isabel had children, she insisted that her daughters be well educated. She invited famous scholars to her court, and she introduced a Golden Age of art and literature in Spain that lasted for more than a century after her death.

RFA & LMP: Isabel's mother is a sad figure. Did your research lead you to any interesting information about Isabel's relationship with her mother, or suggest any explanation for the Queen Mother's withdrawal from society?

CM: Isabel was devoted to her mother, despite the queen's deteriorating mental condition. Her depression seems to have begun with the death of her husband's closest friend, whom she hated. She believed that she was responsible for his death and claimed that the river near her castle whispered his name night and day. After King Enrique summoned Isabel and her younger brother Alfonso to court in Madrid, the Queen Mother became even more distraught. Eventually Isabel's mother was lost to madness.

RFA & LMP: Most people assume that royalty are wealthy and yet you often refer to Isabel's lack of funds. Was she really that poverty-stricken?

CM: Although Isabel always had food, clothing, and a castle to live in, like other members of royalty she had to provide for a huge number of servants and retainers who were dependent upon her. It costs money to run a castle! In the last entry of her diary when she writes about her wedding plans, Isabel doesn't mention that she and Fernando had to borrow their wedding finery and to rely on their friends to provide food for the two thousand invited guests. For years after their marriage, the couple was strapped for money. Later, as they accumulated wealth, Isabel was sometimes criticized for the fine jewels and rich garments that she loved to wear, but she always insisted that she dressed as she did for "political reasons" —to demonstrate her royal power— and not out of personal vanity.

RFA & LMP: How did your trip to Spain influence you in writing Isabel's diary?

CM: Spain is a very old country with a rich history. That richness is reflected in the ancient castles and open plazas and narrow, crooked streets where Isabel and Fernando, their friends and their enemies, once walked. No amount of book research can replace the exhilaration of actually being there and later describing the look and feel of a place. It's not always possible to visit the places I write about, but I never turn down the opportunity.

RFA & LMP: It has been said that many of your novels feature a main character who is an outsider. Is Isabel also one of those outsiders?

CM: In most of my novels I've written about (and identified with) main characters who are outsiders, but I don't think that's true of Isabel. I was drawn to her because of her intellectual curiosity, her courage, and her physical and emotional strength — characteristics that made her a great ruler. Fernando's talents complemented hers, and they learned to work as a team — she was the planner, he was the doer. Theirs was a real love match at a time when marriages had to do with politics and power, not love.

RFA & LMP: What is one question you'd like to ask children after they've finished reading the diary?

CM: Isabel faced many challenges in her early life. What do you think was the most difficult for her to overcome?

RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading Isabel: Jewel of Castilla?

CM: A sense of Isabel's brilliance, combined with her deep, and sometimes deeply flawed, humanity. The common thread throughout all the Royal Diaries is that the characters —including Isabel— were all flesh-and-blood people who lived real lives as children and teenagers before accidents of history shoved them onto center stage. And that's a valuable lesson for all of us.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.

  • Subjects:
    European History, Monarchy and Royalty, Social Studies through Literature, Women's History and Experience, Siblings
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