You want brief? Go read some tweets. This is a twisty, turn-y, intricate book, Shmoopers. We're gonna need you to bear with us here. If we skimp on one plot detail, trust us—it will become super-important later on. You'll just have to read on to find out what we mean:
So, a lot happens in the book's first pages, and very quickly. First, we're introduced to one Leopold Gursky, an old man with a bad heart. He tells us he worked as a locksmith most of his life, but he used to be a writer. He immigrated to New York from Poland after World War II, after the love of his life made the same trip a few years earlier. Unfortunately, after she made that trek, she gave birth to a son (Leo's) and married another man. This son grows up to be a famous writer named Isaac Moritz. Although Leo obsessively follows Isaac's career, they have never met, and Isaac does not know he exists. One night, on a whim, Leo sends him the manuscript of a book he has been writing.
Next we meet a teenage girl in Brooklyn named Alma Singer, who tells us right up front that she was named after a girl in a book called The History of Love (huh?). Her father died when she was young, and she really likes to talk about how awesome a guy he was. Her mother, a book translator, is still in mourning and isn't doing so well. One day a letter arrives from a man named Jacob Marcus asking her to translate a book called The History of Love (double-huh?) from Spanish into English. Alma thinks maybe this man should be her mother's new boyfriend, and goes about trying to set them up. When her mother sends the first installment of the translation, Alma secretly inserts a love letter written in her mother's name.
The third thread in this crazy, not-yet-interwoven story introduces us to Zvi Litvinoff—the author of The History of Love. Litvinoff is dead, but lived in Chile after emigrating from Poland during World War II. The book was originally written in Yiddish, but his wife Rosa helped him translate it into Spanish. Only a few thousand copies were published, one of which ended up in a bookstore in Santiago, Chile, where it was picked up by a young man named David Singer—none other than Alma's father.
We briefly return to Leo Gursky's Manhattan, only to learn that his son Isaac has died. Leo is devastated and crashes the funeral. When he gets home from the service, he finds a brown paper package waiting for him, with "a stack of printed pages" inside. When he starts to read, he realizes the words are his own.
Then we're back across the river in Brooklyn with Alma, who has decided to find out more about this Jacob Marcus, and why The History of Love is so darn important to him. She realizes that, curiously, all the characters in the book have Spanish names except one—Alma Mereminski. She decides this other Alma must be super-important and sets out to find her.
Okay, now we're hanging out with Zvi Litvinoff again, but we're not in Chile anymore, because he's reminiscing about when he used to live in Minsk (capital of present-day Belarus). He used to work for a newspaper, writing obituaries. One day he goes to visit a friend, who is sick in bed. While his friend sleeps, he finds a stack of pages on the desk—obituaries of famous writers, written by his sick friend. The one at the very bottom is titled—are you ready for this?—"THE DEATH OF LEOPOLD GURSKY."
But Leopold Gursky is actually very much alive, alone in his apartment sixty years later, reading something he wrote "so long ago" that has been mysteriously returned to him. And, hey, it turns out he knew someone named Alma too: the love of his life, the mother of his famous son, Isaac. What are the odds?
Across the East River, Alma is still looking for... Alma. She calls Information. She checks the records of New York City births and deaths, but doesn't find anything. What she does find is the secret diary of her younger brother Bird, who has become a devout Jew and thinks he just might be the Messiah.
Still reminiscing, Zvi Litvinoff leaves Europe with a brown paper package given to him by his formerly-sick friend, on which is written, "To be held for Leopold Gursky until you see him again." Zvi moves to Chile, works as a pharmacist, and assumes that Leo died in the Holocaust. Some years later he meets Rosa, and they begin dating. One night he takes out the brown paper package, removes his friend Leo's manuscript from inside, and burns the envelope.
Next we're back to Leo, who's taking the train from Grand Central to Connecticut. He breaks into Isaac's empty home (remember: he's a locksmith). He looks for the manuscript he sent Isaac, hoping for proof that his son read it before he died.
Alma finds a record of Alma Mereminski in the New York City marriage records, learning that she married Mordecai Moritz in 1942. She takes the subway to her apartment and learns that the elder Alma is dead (very disappointing). The doorman suggests she should try to contact the lady's son, Isaac. Back home, Alma learns that her mother has sent another installment of the translation without her having been able to include another love letter (also very disappointing).
Zvi Litvinoff begins to transcribe his friend's book, The History of Love, page by page. He changes all the names—except Alma's—and, at the end of the book, he affixes his friend's auto-obituary. He then tries to dispose of Leo's original—throws it in the trash, buries it in the garden—but he's so haunted by his conscience that he locks the pages in a drawer and hides the key instead. Rosa then helps him translate the book from Yiddish into Spanish.
Shortly after it's published, a letter arrives from America. Rosa, assuming it to be a belated rejection letter from a publisher, intercepts the letter, which is actually from Leo, asking Litvinoff to return his manuscript. Although she had discovered the hidden manuscript years earlier, she totally disregarded it, so it's only now that she learns the truth about The History of Love. The next day they go on a picnic and she purposefully floods the house to destroy Gursky's original manuscript. Now that's one heck of a pair.
Alma turns fifteen years old and goes to the library to check out Isaac Moritz's books. His most famous protagonist is named Jacob Marcus. (Reminder: this is also the name of the guy who requested the translation of The History of Love—is your mind spinning in circles yet?) She drives to Isaac's house to ask him about The History of Love (the same place Leo drove to), but no one is home, so she leaves a note on the door. Ten days later, she finds out he's dead.
Out of nowhere, a fourth narrator appears—Alma's brother Bird. He tells us that he's been selling lemonade to buy a plane ticket to Israel and so he can build an ark. It turns out he thinks there's going to be a flood. But he's recently been experiencing a crisis of faith, after things started going sour for him.
Leo Gursky finds a short story published in a literary magazine, which is attributed to Isaac. It's from the manuscript he'd sent to his son at the beginning of the book. Someone has obviously found it among Isaac's things and assumed that the dead author wrote it. Leo wonders if this means his son read it before he died, in which case he would know the truth—that Leo was his true dad. In the mail he finds a letter asking him to meet at the Central Park Zoo that coming Saturday. It is signed "Alma."
Bird decides he should try to do something helpful. So he sneaks a peek at Alma's notebook (we're not sure how this is "helpful," but we digress), where she's been keeping notes of her search for Alma Mereminski. Assuming this "Alma" to refer to his sister, Bird misinterprets other comments in the notebook and concludes his sister had a different father from his own, and that she's searching for the guy.
One day, the phone rings: it's Isaac Moritz's half-brother Bernard. He says he found Alma's note at Isaac's house (about The History of Love), and it reminded him of something Isaac had told him before he died, about some letters he'd found in their mother's drawer. The letters made clear that Isaac's real father was the author of a book called The History of Love. Bird, knowing the book, asks if the man's name was Zvi Litvinoff, and the man tells him no, it was Leopold Gursky. So Bird writes Leo a letter.
Alma receives a letter too, with the same request for a meeting that Saturday, signed "Leopold Gursky." The two meet on a park bench. Leo has been badly shaken by recent events and assumes he is being led toward death. Alma arrives and Leo believes her to be an angel. She begins telling Leo what she believes about the book—that it was written in Spanish by Zvi Litvinoff, etc.—and after confirming that the Alma in the novel is indeed real, realizes the truth: his book was not really lost in a flood, and this girl was named after his Alma. Alma immediately grasps the totality of the situation—that this old man had once loved a girl named Alma Mereminski, that this man's unknown son was Isaac Moritz, that she had been searching for the wrong person all along, and that Leo Gursky wrote The History of Love.
The History of Love ends with the auto-obituary that ends The History of Love within… The History of Love. See? We told you it was all wrapped up inside itself.
Serafina and the Black Cloak and Serafina and the Twisted Staff are taught in over a thousand classrooms nationwide. Students love the books’ mystery, fast-paced action, and characters (Serafina and Braeden in particular) who they can relate to. Teachers love the historical elements, descriptive writing, engaging themes, and rich vocabulary. Here are some photos and videos of Serafina in the classroom.
I wrote Serafina Series to be an engaging and educational story for my three daughters and their classroom friends. I wanted to tell them the story of an unusual, but heroic girl who must face not only many dangers, but the mystery of her own developing identity. With its combination of Gilded Age / Turn-of-the-Century history, the Biltmore Estate setting, and its fast-paced fantasy action, Serafina and the Black Cloak is an excellent novel to engage young readers in the rewards of historical fiction. Teachers will find it to be well suited for ELA and history curriculum from 4th to 10th grade. The book and its educational materials are Common Core compatible. Although Serafina and the Black Cloak is a work of fiction, it is historically accurate in its depiction of Biltmore Estate, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and other historical details. Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and the Historical Novel Society have all given Serafina extremely strong praise.
We have also found that Serafina has been highly effective for engaging reluctant readers, autistic readers, and dyslexic readers, especially when the book trailer is watched first. The book trailer really helps pull readers in.
SERAFINA EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES
The links below provide PDF files to the educational materials for Serafina and the Black Cloak. Designed for easy printing and photocopying, these documents are meant to provide a variety of resources for you to pick and choose from as you see fit.
SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK
SERAFINA AND THE TWISTED STAFF
SERAFINA AND THE SPLINTERED HEART
FROM SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL (SLJ 06/01/2015):
“A mystery set at a sumptuous estate, featuring a courageous female protagonist entangled in a hair-raising adventure.”
“The story drips with suspense, wrapping readers into the narrative just as easily as the man in the black cloak binds his young victims. Serafina’s friendship with Braeden is heartfelt and believable.”
“Mystery fans will enjoy this book.”
VERDICT A creepy, suspenseful read that’s not quite as dark as the works of Neil Gaiman or Adam Gidwitz.
FROM KIRKUS REVIEWS:
“Beatty spins an enchanting mystery through lonely Serafina’s golden eyes.”
“Each new clue adds another brush stroke to this keenly perceptive portrait of a young girl searching for answers about herself and the world around her.”
“The book leaves readers satisfied with the plot but hungry for more about its unusual heroine.”
“Adults and children will eagerly follow Serafina from the basement into a world of self-discovery, justice, and new friendships.”
TESTIMONIALS FROM TEACHERS & LIBRARIANS
“Serafina and the Black Cloak is a fast-paced middle grade novel full of magic and mystery. With as many twists and turns in the story as the historic Biltmore Estate in which it is set, Robert Beatty’s book will appeal to those familiar with Biltmore’s rich history as well as readers who aren’t. I found myself rooting for Serafina, a quirky and unusual heroine, throughout the book. I’m looking forward to adding the book to my school’s library collection.” —Kirsten LeClerc, Media Coordinator, Vance Elementary School
“Great read! As a school principal, I would definitely recommend the librarians purchase Seraphina and the Black Cloak to have available for all students to enjoy.” —From Goodreads.com
“Fast-paced, suspenseful, and written with beautiful imagery – sure to be a hit with my students!” —From Goodreads.com
“A fantastical thriller that takes place in the early days of the gorgeous Biltmore Estate? Count me in! … The way real details of the house and estate have been woven into this remarkable story about Serafina and her pursuit of the Black Cloak is inspired. … I love that this book can appeal to so many audiences – fans of historical fiction, thrillers, mysteries, ghost stories, fantasy, the supernatural, friendship stories, tales of growing up, and even those who are just interested in Biltmore. I personally will be buying this for my school’s library the second my funds for the new year come in!” —Kayla Edwards on Goodreads.com
“I teach 6th grade English Language Arts and CAN’T WAIT to do a novel study with this book! I read it in a matter of days …murder, mystery, magic …this book has it all. I especially love the lessons to be learned …facing your fears, overcoming insecurities (so common in middle school), and unconditional love from parents AND friends. Outstanding and unique storyline.” —Kimberly Adams on Goodreads.com
PICTURES FROM ONE OF OUR SCHOOL ACTIVITIES:
Carolina Day School – Serafina Class
Serafina in the Classroom – Photos & Videos