Wednesday, July 27, 2011: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Cleopatra's Moon

Arthur A. Levine Books: Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Shecter

Arthur A. Levine Books: Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Shecter

Arthur A. Levine Books: Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Shecter

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Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Cleopatra's Moon

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter, which goes on sale on August 1, 2011. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., has helped support the issue.


Arthur A. Levine Books: Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Shecter

Books & Authors

Children's Review: Cleopatra's Moon

Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, $18.99, 9780545221306, 368p., ages 13-up, August 1, 2011)

First-time novelist Vicky Alvear Shecter plunges us into the captivating world of Cleopatra Selene, the only one of Queen Cleopatra's four children (the other three were males) to survive into adulthood. It may surprise you to learn that Queen Cleopatra not only possessed a hypnotic beauty and keen intelligence, but that she was also a mother. Shecter may imagine the thoughts of Queen Cleopatra's extraordinary daughter, but the author anchors this riveting work of fiction with fascinating facts gleaned from years of research (for her nonfiction books Alexander the Great Rocks the World and Cleopatra Rules!).

As the novel opens, 16-year-old narrator Cleopatra Selene sails on a Roman ship bound for Africa. Her twin brother, Alexandros Helios (whom Cleopatra calls "the sun to my moon"), has died during the voyage because, just prior to their departure, he drank from a poisoned cup intended for her. "I stared at the sea," Cleopatra says, "trying to understand how I came to be here. A motherless daughter, and now a brotherless sister. How was it that I went from a Princess of Egypt... to a prisoner of Rome?" The author thus sets up the framework of the novel, as the teen reflects on her past and fears what lies ahead for her. The heroine's position and circumstances in history may be unique, but her emotions as a teen on the cusp of adulthood are universal.

Shecter then flashes back to a pivotal scene when Cleopatra Selene, at age seven, took part in a ceremony in Alexandria, Egypt, at which her father, Marcus Antonius, made his "Dispositions of War." The event not only portrays the man's power, but also the tensions between him and his native Rome. As he bequeaths land to each of his children, he stirs up controversy with his gift to Caesarion, Queen Cleopatra's only son with her first husband, Julius Caesar. Whispers run through the crowd of a name the girl does not yet recognize: Octavianus. What would Octavianus say about these gifts? Is not Octavianus the rightful successor to Julius Caesar? The author skillfully sets up from the beginning the conflict that will influence the course of Cleopatra Selene's future.

We also see lighter moments--Cleopatra Selene's proficiency at the game of trigon ("I have beaten the king of Egypt," she says, teasing Caesarion) and her jealousy when her brothers receive Eye of Horus gifts from their mother, not realizing the significance of her own gift (a golden scarab pendant with an emerald in the center). These endow the weightier moments with greater significance. In one standout scene, the children's tutor, Euphronius, takes them to visit the Jewish Quarter in Alexandria. As their teacher explains, the queen "does not force them to act against their faith, thus earning their devotion and allegiance." They meet Rabbi Yoseph ben Zakkai, who encourages their questions, and Cleopatra Selene discovers the concept of "free will." The rabbi explains, "It is the discernment--the knowledge of good and evil--that is at the heart of free will." This idea takes hold in the young heroine. Even after the deaths of her parents and her forced move to the house of her enemy, Octavianus, in Rome, Cleopatra Selene evaluates the choices remaining to her within a course of events seemingly determined by fate.

"You have the heart of a great and powerful queen." This is the last thing her mother says to Cleopatra Selene. In one situation after another, the teen wonders what her mother would have thought or advised her to do. It's challenging enough as an adolescent to figure out who you are becoming as an adult. It's harder still as the daughter of a great queen who's no longer there to guide you, and whose reputation has been sullied by a Roman leader anxious to enlarge his kingdom and power base. Cleopatra Selene falls in love with Juba, whose situation resembles her own. The Romans killed his father, a king, then raised Juba in the Octavianus household. At one point, Juba tells her, "The important question is not 'Why was I saved?' but 'What will I do with the life that the gods decided to spare?' " Juba's question haunts her as much as her mother's last words do. She feels torn between her love for Juba and the possibility that a match with Marcellus, Octavianus's nephew and chosen heir to Rome, could lead to her return as queen of Egypt. What will she decide? And does her decision matter when Octavianus steers so much of her destiny?

Shecter smoothly balances historical intrigue with classic adolescent romance and abundant details of life in Egypt and Rome--the food, smells, sounds and sights. Key scenes early on establish Cleopatra Selene's sense of confidence and curiosity, as well as the high respect accorded to women in Egypt versus their second-class status in Rome. The author throws some curve balls in the plot's development but, as rereadings will divulge, she plants subtle indicators all along the way. Scrupulous and generous endnotes reveal where Shecter either diverged from the facts or took liberties to fill in missing information.

If you grew up (as this reader did) lapping up everything about ancient Egypt--its people, their gods, the sense of ceremony, the pyramids, the burial rituals--this book will reignite a sense of astonishment that this culture, so advanced, existed thousands of years before our own. For teens, it serves as a powerful reminder of how the questions so central to becoming an adult cross every line of class, era and culture.


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Vicky Alvear Shecter: The Story Behind the Facts

How did you first become interested in the lineage of Alexander the Great right through Cleopatra Selene?

I was always a history buff, and around the time Oliver Stone was working on Alexander, my brother [Michael Alvear] got a call to work on a book about Alexander the Great. He asked me to help him with it, and I delved into the research. I'd tell my kids stories about Alexander the Great, and they were fascinated. I said--without knowing how difficult it was--that I would publish a children's book about him, and began working on it.

And Cleopatra was the next logical choice?

I learned so much about Cleopatra, but nothing shocked me as much as knowing she had four children, only one of whom survived into adulthood. I was fascinated by what a fierce mother she was. When you see Hollywood movies or plays about Cleopatra, it's always shown that she committed suicide after Marc Antony was brought to her. But the truth was, she lived for weeks after Marc Antony died, negotiating for the lives of her children. In fact, Plutarch writes that Octavianus attacked Cleopatra with threats to her children as if with "a siege engine." So her children were her weakness. Did she love Marc Antony? I believe she did. But this is where Octavianus attacked her. Plutarch says later that her son Caesarion was murdered. When all was lost, that's when she gives up hope. Now her suicide makes more sense.

You're so careful to delineate what is factual and what is not, even as you list the cast of characters. Is that because you hope people will seek out more information about these people?

That's exactly what I would hope. The history writer in me wants to convey to whoever reads it that this history is so rich, so fascinating, and there's so much to learn about these people and their politics, religion,and the interaction between rich and poor, male and female. Octavianus's slow dismantling of civil liberties in the name of safety is very much what we're struggling with today. The Romans were so tired of civil war, they didn't care [about their civil liberties] as long as there was peace. Female autonomy and all those things are still at issue today. In many ways, things haven't changed, and we can look at history as a mirror. How did that work out? On the one hand, it worked out great because [Romans] were the center of the world, but in the case of civil liberties, not so much.

Were there differences in your approach, given that this is a work of fiction, and you'd worked on nonfiction in the past?

I have to say right now, all I want to do is write fiction. It was very freeing. The only sources we have were written by Cleopatra's enemies. With fiction, that gave me the freedom to say, "Wait a minute." Plutarch said Cleopatra tested poison on slaves. Remember that it's coming from a Roman who needs to look good and make Cleopatra look bad; this was a war Octavianus started with Marc Antony and blamed on Queen Cleopatra. The fact of what Plutarch said was there. But what if there was a different reason for that? In protecting her children, she would make the potential poisoner take his own poison. As long as it's consistent with the essential facts, it allows me to shift the perspective a little bit and wonder, "What if it was in service of a different reason?"

The scene in the Jewish Quarter is crucial, in the way it demonstrates the queen's compassion for others' ways of practicing faith, but also because the rabbi introduces Cleopatra Selene to the idea of free will.

Outside of Jerusalem, Alexandria had the largest concentration of Jews during this period. Whatever Cleopatra's particular arrangement was, it was working for everybody. The idea of people wrestling with free will didn't just come up. Christianity took hold because of the suffering under the Roman Empire. And Cleopatra Selene is suffering. It made sense to me that this would be an idea she'd be introduced to and would struggle with. We're talking 25BCE, 30BCE, that's just one generation away from the birth of one particular figure--if we accept the dates that were given to us--who also will change the world.

Related to the idea of free will is that wonderful moment when Juba tells Cleopatra Selene, "The important question is not 'why was I saved?' but 'what will I do with the life that the gods decided to spare?'"

I think that is the essential question of philosophy, really. How much do we control? How much do we have, in terms of free will? How much is out of our hands? And young adults are grappling with those questions. I thought it was important for Juba to show this irony, that he was very much like her. He was taken. He was a prince. How did he handle it? Cleopatra Selene has changed Juba, because of the questions she asks him about the choices he's made. In my interpretation, that changes his character in the same way that she changes. That's what fiction allows. There are other interpretations that people can and have made. This is one that made sense to me and fits within the facts we know.

How did you come up with the structure of the novel, beginning with Cleopatra Selene's journey to an uncertain destination by ship, and then going back in time to fill in the major events of her life?

It was a challenge because I didn't want to lose the drama of the story--that some really incredibly horrible things happened to this young woman. It made sense to me that she'd ask herself, how did I go from the daughter of the most powerful woman in Egypt to this? Once I asked that question, I never really changed the structure. And that's what leads her to her decision, whether to be like her mother or to separate from her. It was important for us to see everything she's lost, for us to care about what choices she makes.

Author photo: Keiko Guest 



Cheryl Klein: Keeping an Eye on the Narrative Line

"Culture is not just something that goes around the world but also goes backward and forward in time," editor Cheryl Klein said. As someone who has edited a number of award-winning translated works, she should know. "A lot of the ideas we discuss now have been wrestled with throughout the ages, like the nature of free will or a ruler's approach." She noted that fiction allows you to see those dramas playing out as they were lived, not just through the history books.

One of the things that attracted Klein to Cleopatra's Moon was that she'd never known Cleopatra had a daughter. "We think of her as queen and sex symbol, and we don't think of her as a mother. They seem like mutually exclusive roles, but of course they're not," Klein explained. Another was that the book "takes us beyond most historical fiction--which might tell a great story of a specific time or place, but then leave it at that. This story used its historical framework to explore larger ideas, like free will," she said. "It's a story of loss. Her family, her country--these things are being stripped away from Cleopatra Selene one by one. Vicky uses those historical facts to explore free will versus fate."

Both author and editor agreed that much of Klein's role was to keep "an eye on the narrative line," as Klein put it. From a multitude of engrossing facts, they had to choose the ones that were the most emotionally compelling. "What is advancing Cleopatra Selene's story as well as helping us understand the culture she came from, and what would be exciting to readers?" became the guiding principle. Shecter originally had wanted to use as the heroine's opening flashback an event that occurred when Cleopatra Selene was four years old--the first time she met her father, Marcus Antonius.

In that scene, she overhears a discussion that Roman fathers can have ultimate say about the life or death of their children. If the father wants to keep the child, he picks it up and claims it. If he doesn't want to claim the child, he'd step over the child, and it would be put to death. However, Klein preferred the scene they chose--a grand pageant in which Marcus Antonius makes his "Dispositions of War," granting each of the children a whole country, before the entire Egyptian public--because it showed how much was at stake, and these historical figures' larger-than-life personalities. "It's not just whether my father is going to acknowledge me, but will he give me a kingdom?" Klein said with a laugh, adding, "It also sets up the conflict [with Octavianus in Rome] very neatly, too."

Photo: Cal Werry


Book Brahmin: Vicky Alvear Shecter

On your nightstand now:

Why We're All Romans by Carl J. Richard; Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon' Starcrossed by Josephine Angelini (ARC); and The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault. When I was a teen, I devoured all her superb historical fiction about the ancient world.

Your top five authors:

This changes on a regular (sometimes hourly) basis, but at this moment, I'd say Suzanne Collins, Steven Saylor, John Green, Plutarch and Sarah Dunant.

Book you've faked reading:

I try not to fake anything because I just know I'm going to get caught out and embarrass myself. However, I have been known to fake-smile-knowingly when Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities comes up.

Book you are an evangelist for:

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I've loved this book since I first read it in college. I named my first dog Zora Neale! There is something magical about Hurston's ability to capture the rhythms of colloquial speech and distill it into pure poetry.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Ha! That would be just about every YA book I own.

Book that changed your life:

I couldn't pick just one. In college, it was Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Years later, it was Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. And most recently, it's been John Green's Looking for Alaska.

Favorite line(s) from a book:

"She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see." --Their Eyes Were Watching God

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

West with the Night by Beryl Markham. Gorgeous, gorgeous writing.


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