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Posted by CBethM on February 22, 2024 in Author Posts |

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When you’re a child it’s so difficult to imagine that all the elders around you were ever children like you. You have the sense that they’ve always been old. That they were brought into the world old. As you grow up, maybe you see a photo of a relative in their youth, and you have that revelation that everyone was a child once.

Building on this premise, I decided that in my new middle grade novel, Across So Many Seas, I’d write from the point of view of four different girls in four different eras and four different places. They’d all be twelve years old and share a Spanish Jewish – Sephardic – heritage.

The first girl, Benvenida, lives in 1492 Spain and along with her family is expelled for being Jewish and they must leave and seek a refuge elsewhere. The second girl, Reina, lives in 1923 Turkey and gets sent off to Cuba on an arranged marriage as punishment for disobeying her father. The third girl, Alegra, lives in 1961 Cuba and is thrilled to join the literacy campaign but when her family is threatened by the revolutionary changes she must leave the island. The fourth girl, Paloma, lives in 2003 Miami, and is the granddaughter of Reina, and the daughter of Alegra, as well as a descendant of Benvenida, and the keeper of the memories passed on to her.

Each girl experiences the history of her moment in time and can’t know what those who came before or after her lived through. But the reader does know. And that’s the magic of the story.

In an era when girls were illiterate, Benvenida has been taught to read and write by her mother, who comes from a family of printers. But she goes even further, much beyond what is possible for girls, by daring to write poems. Her mother encourages her, and though her father is fine with her reading and writing, they know he wouldn’t approve of her writing poems. So they keep this a secret. In Benvenida’s section, the reader enters into the world of her thoughts and her poems. But only a line of all the writing she did in the fifteenth century will survive into the era when Paloma is alive and taking a tour with her family of the Museo Sefardí (the Sephardic Museum) in Toledo, Spain.

In Reina’s section, we learn of her friendship with a Muslim Turkish boy, Sadik, whom she has known since they were little. They are neighbors and their families share a courtyard. Both are twelve and friends, but Reina’s father doesn’t want her to mingle too much with him because she is growing up and must keep her distance from boys, especially boys who aren’t Jewish, so that she can build a good reputation for when she marries. When Reina disobeys her father, she is locked up in the house, where she plays the oud and sings old Spanish love songs that her mother has taught her, which have been passed on from generation to generation since the expulsion from Spain. Sadik listens to her through the walls until she finally leaves Turkey for Cuba, never to return or see her family again.

In Alegra’s section, we see her interact with a kindly farm couple, Gloria and Alfredo, in the countryside of Melena, who she teaches to read and write. Alfredo has worked so hard all his life cutting sugarcane and working the fields that his hands are all gnarled and can’t hold a pencil. Writing is impossible for him, but Alegra teaches him how to read. With pride he learns to read his favorite poem by the Cuban independence leader José Martí. Later, when Alegra is sent out of Cuba, we learn that she had to leave by herself and live with a foster family for years before her mother could join her. But she won’t ever forget the great idealism she felt in the Cuban countryside.

Paloma can’t know all that we know about her ancestors and how their hearts broke and how their hearts healed and what they dreamed when they were her age. The beauty of her story is how she tries to bridge all the bits and pieces of the life stories that she has heard. And she loves music and so she delves into her grandmother Reina’s experience by asking her to teach her the Spanish love songs she sung when she was young. That Spanish is known as Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, for it is the Spanish the expelled Jews kept speaking as they moved from one diaspora to another, as they moved across so many seas. As she learns the songs, she learns that her great-grandmother’s last name was Toledano and so they may have a tie to the town of Toledo in Spain. The book ends with a visit to the town and its Museo Sefardí, where past and present converge and time becomes a circle of connections.

Writing a book is always a journey, a journey of the imagination, and in Across So Many Seas, I was a time traveler, experiencing being twelve years old in four different historical moments. What a joy it was to tell these four stories, not being sure as I wrote them exactly how they’d all come together, but having faith that they would. I believe they did come together, though you must read to the very last page, indeed to the very last word – that’s when everything you know as a reader will circle around you and hold you like a hug.

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Ruth Behar is a Cuban-born anthropologist and writer of books for young people. She won the Pura Belpré Award for her middle-grade novel, Lucky Broken Girl. Her second novel, Letters from Cuba, was selected for the Kirkus list of best historical fiction. Her picture book, Tía Fortuna’s New Home, is on Kirkus and School Library Journal best book lists. She and her son, Gabriel Frye-Behar, co-authored Pepita Meets Bebita, a picture book about the joys of family. Behar’s new novel, Across So Many Seas, will be released on February 6, 2024. The first Latina to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, Behar teaches at the University of Michigan. Find her online at https://www.ruthbehar.com/, @ruthbehar (Twitter), and @ruthbeharauthor (Instagram).

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