Yesterday we discussed a book that takes place 400 or more years in the future. Today we zoomed back in time to the end of the 16th century, the setting for the historical novel, Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, by Katherine (Kate) Marsh. This fascinating and complex book blends actual history with a made-up story told from the point of view of a court dwarf. To prepare for our author visit, we did improvs to explore the idea of status, keeping in mind exactly where you stand in the ranking within a court. Even though a few scenes ended with the proverbial “Off with her head!” we knew the stakes were not as high for us as they were for the people in Jepp’s time.
We returned to the camp room for Kate’s presentation. She filled us in on so much of the research she did to make Jepp come to life, as well as the personal issues in her own life that contributed to the writing of this book. She gave us a brief biography of her mother, which included the fact that her mom was an ardent believer in astrology. She consulted her horoscope to decide when the best time to get a haircut was or when Kate should take her SATs! So Kate grew up puzzling over the idea of fate vs. free will.
The famous painting, “Las Meninas,” by Diego Velazquez (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas,) which features a court dwarf, peaked her curiosity. She sought out more information about the history of court dwarfs, which dates back to ancient Egyptian times.
Her interest in the tension between astrology and science, fate and free will, led her to the historical figure Tycho Brahe who was a real leading astronomer and astrologer. In one person he represented this era of changing beliefs. It turns out that he had a court dwarf named Jepp. Other than his name and his existence at Brahe’s court Uraniborg, there was no information about Jepp’s life. All these strands were woven together to create Jepp, Who Defied the Stars.
Phew! Lots to think about. But now it was lunchtime and Kate joined us for some fun rounds of Apples to Apples before we left for the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see rooms, objects and paintings related to the book.
At the museum we sketched some of the things we were viewing, like 16th century astrological clocks, automatons, and tapestries. We viewed 16th and 17th century Northern European paintings that illustrated what people wore, what houses, ships, roads and the landscape looked like in the time and place of Jepp. We used some portraits by artists like Rembrandt as jumping off points for stories, ending up in a room with half a dozen Vermeer paintings. Wow! Wow! Wow! They are beautiful.
We said good bye to Kate after a full and rich day of history, art, and literature, and got back to Symphony Space just in time to go home! Tomorrow we meet with the Walter Dean Myers, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, to explore his gritty realistic novel about basketball and life, Slam.