A Guide for Reading Groups
Betsy and the Emperor
By Staton Rabin
About the Book
"An engaging novel..." -New York Times Book Review
Based on true events, Betsy and the Emperor tells the story of fourteen-year-old Betsy Balcombe and her friendship with Napoleon Bonaparte. Once the emperor of France, now in 1815, Napoleon is a captive of the British people. During his confinement on St. Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic, Napoleon is made to live with the Balcombe family. Young Betsy is the only foreigner he has ever met who is not afraid of him, and Napoleon is intrigued. Rabin's story reveals new insights into the heart and mind of one of the most towering, fascinating historical figures of our time -- and tells a tale of hope and bravery that will inspire readers to their own heights of courage.
About the Author
Staton Rabin has a B.F.A. in film from New York University. In addition to writing for children, she is a screenwriter; a popular speaker about the art, craft, and business of writing for film; and a veteran story analyst for Scr(i)pt magazine, screenwriters, and producers. Staton Rabin lives in Irvington, New York.
Note: Betsy and the Emperor can be used by history teachers as a tool for teaching French and Napoleonic history. In addition, it may be used by English teachers to encourage reading followed by thoughtful reflection as well as providing ideas for writing exercises. As you use this guide, look for the (H) to denote questions of particular interest to history teachers and the (E) for English teachers.
Activities & Research
- Why is Napoleon sent to St. Helena? What do you think it was like for Napoleon, the emperor of France, to be taken from Europe to a remote island and imprisoned in a private home? Do you think the imprisonment was fair? Support your answers with details from the story. (H)
- In what ways are Betsy and Napoleon similar? What draws them toward one another in friendship? Do you think that Betsy and Napoleon would have become friends if they had met while Napoleon was still in power? Explain your thinking. (E)
- What is Napoleon's public image? How is it different from what he is like in private? Give examples from the book.
- Betsy's father believes that "[no] girl should stay in school beyond the age of fourteen." Why does he believe this? What does he think a young woman should do at this age? What kind of future does he envision for Betsy? Is this realistic? Support your answers with examples from the text.
- Betsy and her brother's tutor, Huff, develop a plan to free Napoleon. What is the plan? If the plan were successful, what would it mean for Napoleon? How would it change the course of history? What effect would it have on Betsy and Huff? (H)
- Betsy describes St. Helena as a prison. Why does she feel this way? What does Betsy learn from Napoleon about the meaning of freedom?
- As the friendship between Napoleon and Betsy grows, rumors begin to circulate that they are having a romantic relationship. Is the speculation warranted? What reason do people have to suspect an affair? What do you think was the true nature of the relationship between Betsy and Napoleon? (E)
- Napoleon tells Betsy about his accomplishments as emperor. What were some positive effects of Napoleon's time in power? Conversely, what were some of the negative consequences of his rule? Think about how he might have been perceived differently in France than in Britain. (H)
- Some historians believe Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning. Betsy believes he died of a broken heart. What reason does she have to believe this? Do you think it is possible to die of a broken heart? Explain. What do you think caused Napoleon's death? (E) & (H)
- How does Betsy change over the course of the book? How does her relationship with Napoleon influence her personal development? How does it continue to influence Betsy in her adult life? Why was her relationship with Napoleon so powerful?
- Betsy and the Emperor is a work of historical fiction. What is historical fiction? What elements of Betsy and the Emperor are factual, and which are fictional? (See Rabin's Source Notes.) What responsibility do writers of historical fiction have to stay true to the facts? How much are writers "allowed" to make up? In your opinion, does the author accurately portray Napoleon's life and times? Explain. (E)
Betsy and the Emperor
- Separate fact from fiction. Organize a piece of chart paper into three columns. Label the first column "fact," the second column "fiction," and the third column "not sure." List details from Betsy and the Emperor and place them in what you believe to be the appropriate columns. (H)
- Learn more about Napoleon Bonaparte at the library and on the Web. Research Napoleon's rule so that you can understand the events that led to his exile. (H)
- Create a list of 5-10 questions that you would ask Betsy in an interview. Present these questions to a classmate who will take on the role of Betsy. Present the results of your interview in the form of a magazine or newspaper article. (E)
- Research U.S. history during the time of Napoleon's rule. For example, who was the U.S. president? How many states were there in the Union and what were they? What fashions were popular in the U.S. at the time? What kind of music were Americans listening to? (H)
- Locate St. Helena Island on a world map or in an atlas. Trace the journey from Great Britain to St. Helena. What land and water masses separate St. Helena from France? Use your knowledge of geography, politics, and history to create a series of journal entries that Napoleon might have written while on board the ship bound for St. Helena. (E) & (H)
- Use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the Code Napoleon with the U.S. Constitution. You can read more about the Code Napoleon at http://www.napoleonseries.org/reference/political/code.cfm.
- Napoleon finds a collection of plates on which key events of his life are depicted. What are some of the events that appear on these plates? On a paper plate, draw or paint a scene that depicts a key event that occurred during Napoleon's time on St. Helena. (H)
- In the Author's Note, Staton Rabin says that while writing Betsy and the Emperor she purposely avoided reading Betsy Balcombe's book, To Befriend an Emperor: Betsy Balcombe's Memoirs of Napoleon on St Helena, about her friendship with Napoleon. Why did Rabin choose not to read the book? What sources did Rabin use to write Betsy and the Emperor? Do you think Ms. Rabin's book would have been different had she read Betsy Balcombe's autobiography prior to writing her novel? Why or why not? After reading Betsy and the Emperor, read Betsy Balcombe's book and write a paper comparing the two novels. (E)
By Staton Rabin
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing www.SimonSaysTEACH.com
This reading group guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.