The Walls of Cartagena
by Julia Durango
Illustrated by Tom Pohrt
About the book:
Calepino has been raised in luxury and educated like a nobleman despite being born in a slaveship off the coast of Cartagena. Now that he has turned thirteen, however, he is being pressed into service with a Jesuit priest. Calepino does not want to serve with Father Pedro who spends his days with lepers and slaves in deplorable conditions. No, Calepino would much prefer to read about Don Quixote in a hammock with his friend the sloth nearby. But when Calepino learns of the plight of two slaves he understands the true gift of his many freedoms and does everything he can to help them despite the risks.
About the author:
Julia Durango made many trips to Cartagena, Columbia, researching in preparation for writing The Walls of Cartagena. She is the author of several picture books including Dream Hop, Cha-Cha Chimps, Angels Watching Over Me, and Pest Fest. She lives in Ottawa, Illinois with her two sons.
About the illustrator:
Tom Pohrt is a fifteen-year veteran of children’s publishing. The titles he has illustrated include The Tomb of the boy King by John Frank and The Wishing Bone and Other Poems by Stephen Mitchell. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
How did you become interested in Cartagena’s history?
I first traveled to Colombia when I was 19, as an exchange student to the University of the Andes. I fell in love with Cartagena the minute I saw it -- all that amazing colonial architecture overlooking the dazzling Caribbean Sea, surrounded by huge stone walls to keep out marauders and pirates. I felt sure that those walls had borne witness to some amazing stories, and so began my treasure hunt through Cartagena’s history some 20+ years ago.
What did you learn about yourself as a writer by creating this story?
I first started writing The Walls of Cartagena while pregnant with Kyle, my oldest son. Two sons, six picture books, eight part-time and full-time jobs, and twelve years later, it is finally being published. So I guess you could say this story taught me a lot about patience and perseverance (although I hope to God it never takes me this long to finish a book again!).
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
There are two quotes I’ve carried with me for years. Whenever I sit down to write, I keep Elmore Leonard’s words with me: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” And whenever I’ve been sitting for too long, I remind myself of Robert Louis Stevenson’s observation: “Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.” Writing an adventure story is fun, but living one is even better. J
Read the letter that opens the novel. Make a list of predictions based on it.
- Why is this statement true in Cartagena: “One man’s protection is another man’s prison?”
- Explain why Calepino, Father Pedro and Sacabuche are boarding a slaveship. Would you be willing to serve in this way?
- Who does the story of Mara and Tomi remind Calepino of his own story? How are they hoping he might help?
- Describe Sacabuche and Father Pedro. Who would you prefer to work for? Why? Why do you think Father Pedro was later named the “Patron saint of slaves?”
- Compare and contrast (or create a venn diagram) of Calepino’s life before and after his thirteenth birthday. Why is he pressed into service with the Jesuits?
- What are Calepino’s special gifts and talents? Does Calepino have an obligation to use his gifts to help his people? Why or why not. Do you?
- Why is Dr. Lopez brought to treat Mara? Why does Mara consider it a blessing for the child? How do Calepino and Dr. Lopez get along? Why?
- Why does Calepino decide to go serve at San Lazaro? Why is it such a dreaded place? Would you be willing to risk your own health to serve others? Why is it an excellent place to hide forbidden books?
- What does Dr. Lopez mean when he quotes Sancho Panza “He preaches well that lives well.” Do you agree with him? Do you also agree with the Galileo quote about reason? Why or why not?
- What became of Tomi and Mara? How does their situation become dire for both of them? How do they hope Calepino can help? Why doesn’t Father Pedro do something for them?
- What does Calepino learn from Tiburon about escaped slave settlements? List the steps he takes to free his friends. How does he involve Father Pedro, Sacabuche and Dr. Lopez? Is it fair for him to involve others when the risks to their safety are very high too?
- When Dr. Lopez is thrown in prison Calepino almost gives himself away for no reason. Explain why his confession would not have helped the doctor. How does Calepino convince a priest to lie?
- Why does Tiburon say that Calepino betrayed Dr. Lopez? Have you ever refused to trust a friend with important information? How do you know when you can trust someone?
- In the end, what does Calepino decide to do with his freedom? How has he changed over the course of the novel? Do you think Calepino is following the 9th commandment of San Basilio (to be valiant and die for one’s race)?
Writing: Choose one of the following to write:
A letter from Calepino to Dr. Lopez about San Lazaro after the close of the novel
A letter from Tomi to Calepino
A scene between Sacabuche and Calepino before the novel opens
A poem that Calepino wrote at any moment in the story
Good readers make connections to a story as they read. These connections remind them of something from their own life or to another story they’ve read. This helps them understand what is going on in the story and helps you to remember when you leave the book, too. Fill out the following chart based on the book:
Text to Text Connections
Text to Self Connections
Text to World Connections
Ex: Made me think about Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen which is told through the eyes of a slave
Ex: I’d much prefer to read in a hammock than work, too.
Ex: I wonder how long slavery lasted in South America compared to USA
Research one of the following topics and create a poster, powerpoint or pamphlet about what you learned:
History of Cartagena, Columbia
Hansen’s disease (leprosy)
The Jesuit tradition
Choose one of the following depicting your favorite scene in the novel:
a sculpture (explain your piece in a brief artist’s statement)
a sketch or drawing (inspired by Tom Pohrt’s work)
Leprosy was a disease that often carried great stigma and shame. Are there modern diseases that cause this kind of suffering? Research a modern disease and discover it’s history, symptoms, and treatments.