Isabel: Jewel of Castilla Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Carolyn Meyer is an award-winning author known for her exciting historical fiction. Here she uses her writing talent to bring young readers to Spain in 1466. Readers are taken inside the castle walls to view the world of royalty, arranged marriages, political intrigue, and power struggles that turn brother against brother.
As a young student, Meyer says she hated history. "It always seemed to be about dates and battles and generals and treaties, and I cared more about what people ate and what they wore and what they did all day." Isabel: Jewel of Castilla reflects Meyer's interests. Costumes, customs, dining habits, and leisure activities bring the people and history of this period to life.
Queen Isabel's diary portrays a strong girl who grows up to be a powerful ruler whose reign was noted for both the horrors of the Inquisition and a spectacular growth of art and literature that has been called the Golden Age of Spain.
"I am guilty of the sin of envy — envy of my own younger brother, whose education is so much more interesting than mine." Fifteen-year-old Isabel, princess and future Queen of Spain, records her frustration, desires, hopes, joys, and sorrows in the diary she begins on Ash Wednesday, 1466. But rather than becoming a "Book of Deadly Sins" as she intends, Isabel's diary becomes a record of her ascension to the throne as one of the Fifteenth Century's most powerful and influential rulers.
Isabel lives in a time of great turmoil: her father's death transforms her mother into a grieving widow who doesn't even recognize her own children. Furthermore, King Enrique, Isabel's older brother, has isolated her and their younger brother, Alfonso, from the grieving Queen Widow and placed them in the care of his wife, Queen Juana. "For weeks after our arrival, Enrique kept Alfonso locked up in a castle tower, and freed him only after he learned that Queen Juana had tried to poison Alfonso." The treachery commences.
The conspirators and schemers include princes, grandes or wealthy influential nobles, bishops, and even servants. Spies lurk behind every fan; no one can be trusted. Even the ladies who surround Isabel aren't loyal. The object of these plots is no less than the throne — the power — of the monarchy. "Some of these grandes and churchmen set up a rebel throne and placed my younger brother upon it, proclaiming him King Alfonso. Now Castilla has two kings, the kingdom is divided, and the people do not know which king to serve."
Through Isabel's royal diary, author Carolyn Meyer reveals a teenager who emerges as Christopher Columbus' benefactor, providing the money, ships, and sailors for his explorations. But we also learn of an Isabel history books rarely discuss — a girl who refuses to marry the vulgar, elderly king her brother selects; a girl who harbors doubts about her friends because they were once Jewish; a girl whose confessor is remembered as one of history's most notorious and infamous villains, Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. Isabel: Jewel of Castilla is an exciting glimpse into the everyday life of a teenager who one day will be crowned Queen of Spain.
Thinking About the Book
- Princess Isabel begins her diary on orders from her confessor, Padre Tomás de Torquemada. "I am to examine my conscience regularly. Whenever I commit a Deadly Sin, I am to write about it here and meditate upon it" (February 19, 1466). Keep a list of the deadly sins Isabel writes about in her diary. Do you think writing about these faults helps her avoid them? Why?
- What are the personal qualities that make Beatríz such a good friend to Isabel?
- King Enrique offers Isabel as a wife to several different men including King Alfonso of Portugal, the French Duke of Berry, and Fernando, Prince of Aragón and King of Sicily. Even without meeting him, Isabel chooses Fernando. What were the factors that influenced her choice? Discuss how royal marriages were arranged during this time. What were the political and religious reasons that influenced Enrique's choices?
- How did Isabel's life differ from the life of a princess in a fairy tale?
- Isabel invents nicknames for some of the people in her life based on the person's character and personality. El Escorpión, El Zorro, and El Torro are three names she uses often. What do these names mean? What characteristics are implied by each name? Why are these names appropriate for the men to whom she gives them?
- What is the connection between Isabel and Christopher Columbus?
- At the end of her diary, Isabel writes, "My life is about to change completely, and therefore I believe it is time to put aside this book. But I shall not write 'The End.' Instead I write — THE BEGINNING" (October 18, 1469). What part of life is ending for Isabel? Do you think her life will really change? Do you agree that she should put aside her diary?
- Isabel spends a good deal of time in her diary describing what people look like and what they wear and trying her own hand at drawing. Based on her descriptions, draw a picture of both Fernando and El Escorpión.
- Queen Isabel will forever be linked to America because she and Fernando financially supported Christopher Columbus' explorations. Read a letter that Columbus wrote to the King and Queen.
- Several stamps honor Christopher Columbus but none honor Isabel and Fernando. Design a stamp that offers an insight into the role these monarchs played in world history. Who do you think was more influential, Columbus or Isabel? Why?
- Using your copy of Isabel's diary and reference sources in your library or classroom, find out what each of these words means.
- Make a chart that shows the good and bad decisions or incidents that occurred during Isabel's reign during the last part of the fifteenth century. Remember to look at both sides of the issues: Columbus' exploration allowed European people to move to the "new world," but he and his men brought diseases that wiped out entire civilizations, and those who came after him enslaved many native peoples. Is it easy to say that a queen, king, president, or any ruler is "good"?
- Have the members of your discussion group each choose one diary entry that they believe will get others interested in reading Isabel: Jewel of Castilla. Ask individual discussion group members to explain why they chose the passage they did.
Discussion Guide written 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.