Here is a charming and delightful book, which takes us on a journey through a young boy’s day as he leaves his ancient Egyptian rural home for a teeming city and a school where he will learn to become a scribe. Written in compellingly simple non-rhyming verse, the narrative rolls along pleasantly and will make for easy oral recitation.
Waking up before sunrise, the youngster is given a protective amulet in the form of a scarab beetle by his mother. Scarab beetles were called Khepri and we are told that this is also the child’s name. Walking by his still sleeping younger sisters, Khepri follows his father to the Nile where they board their papyrus skiff and sail on the great river. Along the way, Khepri sings songs to pacify the crocodile god Sobek and the hippopotamus goddess Taueret—two dangerous water creatures—and describes the sun’s rising as the dawning of the god Khepri, which was the name of the early morning form of the solar deity. Arriving at the great city of Thebes, Khepri’s father gives him a scribal kit consisting of long thin reeds for writing and little round cakes of black and red paste which were mixed with water to be used as ink. At the school’s gate, Khepri pauses and reflects on his new life, reassured by the gifts his parents gave him and the warming power of his protective deity on his shoulders. He will not be alone on his new journey.
This narrative is followed by remarks on the media used for writing in ancient Egypt, mostly broken pieces of pottery known as ostraca (or ostracon in the singular) and the more expensive papyrus; the astonishing number of signs used in the ancient Egyptian writing system; and the ibis-headed god Thoth, who was believed to have invented writing and acted as scribes’ protective deity. Ancient Egyptian schools are discussed next, followed by a short bibliography of easily accessible books on ancient Egypt. Next come personal notes by the author and the illustrator, who tell us where they found their inspiration for their own journey into ancient Egypt. A useful glossary of words used in the story concludes the book.
The author clearly acquainted herself with ancient Egyptian culture and history. She presents the characters as real human beings, wisely avoiding the stereotype of the inaccessible and mystical protagonists found in older books on ancient Egypt. The parents are clearly loving and caring, the addition of the three younger sisters rounds out the picture of a real family, and the Egyptian setting is accurately and evocatively described. Two specific instances of this care can be mentioned here. When Khepri is said to be singing songs to ward off dangerous Nile creatures, he is doing something that ancient Egyptian fishermen actually did, as a good number of tomb scenes demonstrate. The figure reciting the incantation was shown pointing his index finger at the water as he addressed the threatening animals, beseeching their good will. And when Khepri is given his scribal kit by his father, the text describes the ink colors as “black and red, the colors of the Nile mud and the desert,” kemet (“black”) and deshret (“red”) being the very words used by ancient Egyptians to describe their fertile land and the surrounding deserts, respectively.
The story is beautifully illustrated by the award-winning artist Sally Wern Comport, whose trademark collage layered technique will go a long way to explain some of the concepts found in the tale. As an example, mentions of the divinities Sobek and Taueret are complemented by images of these on the pages’ sidebars. In fact, most of the words used in the narrative are clearly illustrated on each double-page spread, so should not be difficult to explain to a young audience. Like the author, the illustrator knows her material well, as she rendered the figures in a naturalistic way but then drew other elements—notably the fish in the river—in a decidedly ancient Egyptian fashion of being seen in profile. As an additional exercise, one could go to the endpapers and revisit the full story, where it is cleverly laid out for us from the young boy’s rising in the morning to an image of the god Khepri clearly seen as a rising sun, and ending with scribes shown dutifully writing at the end of the three registers of drawings.
This is a lovely book all around. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Ronald J. Leprohon, University of Toronto
Published in Africa Access Review (July 13, 2020)
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