Category Archives: Egyptian

Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave by Shyima Hall with Lisa Wysocky

Hidden Girl Hall“If this book leads to even a single rescue, then my time in bondage was worth it,” Shyima Hall writes in the penultimate paragraph in the final chapter of her new memoir. That “time in bondage” she refers to is four long years during which she was a slave. This is not a long-ago story. This is a 20th-into-21st century nightmare: “when you are a slave, your life belongs to someone else. It is an unimaginable existence for most people, and I am glad of that. I hope that soon no one will ever have to feel the overwhelming sense of loss, frustration, exhaustion, hunger, demeaning words, and physical abuse that I did.”

In her native Egypt, Shyima El-Sayed Hassan was born in 1989 into a large family living in extreme poverty. She was the seventh of 11 children of an abusive, usually-absent father and a powerless, desperate mother. She knew little of her older siblings, although she remembers being sexually molested by older brothers. She helped care for the younger children, whose names she is no longer “100 percent sure about.” And yet she remembers those early childhood years with longing and love.

At 8, Shyima’s parents sold her to a wealthy family; her enslavement was the price for a theft committed by Shyima’s older sister when she was a servant in that home. At 10, the captor family moved to southern California, smuggling Shyima into the U.S. with a hired attendant (who traveled first class, while Shyima went solo in steerage). For two years, she lived in “a tiny windowless storage room in the three-car garage” of a luxurious home in an exclusive gated community. Shyima, who had been one among substantial staff in the five-floored mansion on the sprawling compound in Egypt, was now alone in serving her captor family of two parents and five children. Two years later, when she was finally rescued from her captors, her English vocabulary consisted of three words: hi, dolphin, stepsister.

In spite of being ‘free,’ Shyima knew virtually nothing of the world outside her captors’ home. What most children, most human beings, took for granted – school, friendships, hobbies – were all unknown experiences for Shyima. She would endure two foster homes, and an adoptive family that gave her an American last name but little else, until she was able to choose her own life as a young adult.

As wrenching as Shyima’s life story is, as literature, her memoir ultimately disappoints. Co-written with author Lisa Wysocky, whose previous titles are mostly equestrian-focused, Hidden Girl tends toward uneven, repetitive, pedestrian at best. How unfortunate that such an important story – more 17,000 new slaves are trafficked into the U.S. each year; a mere 2% are eventually rescued – gets mired in such a mediocre narrative. That said, perhaps content trumps style here, and aware readers can work together to make Shyima’s wish – to “put an end to the terrible custom of slavery” – come true: “I hope that it is sooner rather than later.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Egyptian, Egyptian American

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Anatomy of a DisappearanceHisham Matar’s second novel (following his much-lauded, substantially-awarded debut, In the Country of Men) reads like a fast-moving dream, events jarringly, jaggedly forced together, and yet somehow managing to maintain a clear, thoughtful narrative. Narrator Steve West’s methodically-paced, calmly-controlled voice imbues Matar’s haunting story with dignity and gravitas.

Disappearance, absence, displacement loom large throughout Nuri’s life. Even as a young boy, what Nuri knows of his Cairo home is already a compromised existence-in-exile as a result of his father’s political past. When his mother dies, his father remarries a vibrant young woman named Mona whom the 12-year-old Nuri claims as his own upon first sight. Sent away to an exclusive English boarding school, Nuri is separated from all that is familiar, including the devoted servant girl who helped raise him.

And then his father disappears, in 1972 when Nuri is just 14. That loss becomes the single defining event of Nuri’s life; in the desperate, unending search to discover what happened, both Nuri and Mona learn as many truths about themselves, and each other, as about the distant, enigmatic man who once held them tenuously together.

The missing parent looms large in both of Matar’s titles, telling proof that he writes what he knows: Matar lost his own father, a Libyan dissident, to a politically motivated kidnapping in 1990; decades later, the elder Matar remains missing.

In a January 2010 article for the UK’s Guardian, Matar wrote about learning that his father was seen “‘[f]rail, but well’” in 2002 in a secret prison, although the news took eight years to reach the surviving family: ” … weeks from finishing that novel [Anatomy], I learn that my father, who disappeared 20 years ago, might be alive … Uncanny how reality presses against that precious quiet place of dreaming. As if life is jealous of fiction.” Fictional as Anatomy claims to be, echoing his literary stand-in Nuri, Matar holds on to his father’s coat waiting for his someday-return. “Maybe it still fits him,” he muses.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Arab, British, Egyptian, European, Middle Eastern

Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat, translated by Denys Johnson-Davis

Given the monumental (continuous) changes post-Arab Spring, my recent (ongoing) search for women’s voices before and after led me to an unusual writer who defies many expectations of what it means to be internationally literary: Alifa Rifaat lives and works in a traditional Egyptian Muslim society (this collection was first published in English translation almost three decades ago), she does not have a university education (her family married her off instead), she speaks a single language which means her reading is restricted to literature available only in Arabic, and the only time she has left her provincial Egyptian life is for religious pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.

“At first consideration this would appear an uncompromising background for a writer of fiction,” notes her translator Denys Johnson-Davies (the notable nonagenarian and revered translator of Nobel-ist Naguib Mahfouz, Mahmud Darwish, Tayed Salih, and many more), “yet it is these very limitations that have imposed upon her writing its freshness and actuality. Most of her stories express, implicitly rather than explicitly, a revolt against many of the norms and attitudes, particularly those related to woman and her place in society.” Rifaat’s protests are less political than they are just simply human: men should behave kindly towards women – “as enjoined by the Qur’an” – and when they don’t, women turn to “contempt and rebellion.”

In the titular “Distant View of a Minaret,” a woman long denied fulfillment in marriage surprises herself by calmly pouring herself a cup of coffee immediately after her husband’s death. In “An Incident in the Ghobashi Household,” a woman figures out to save her daughter and therefore her family. In “Badriyya and Her Husband,” a lonely wife whose husband returns from prison, is proverbially “the last to know” but she finally contemplates how she will “find the strength not to open the door to him.” In “My World of the Unknown,” a woman embarks on a mysterious affair that may or may not be real, but more importantly provides her great joy and pleasure. In “The Flat on Nakshabandi Street,” an elderly maiden aunt who lives with her bachelor nephew watches life go by (and plots her daily machinations) from her window seat overlooking the street below.

The majority of Rifaat’s 15 short stories here underline how difficult basic consideration between the sexes seems to be. In her immediate world tightly circumscribed by traditional, religious, and societal expectations, a sense of resigned regret undeniably looms, but lest you dismiss the Rifaat’s writing as bleak and disheartening, be assured that many of the women here find their own ways of surviving, and even thriving.

Tidbit: What a surprise to find the eminent Denys Johnson-Davis on BookDragon (!) as the author of a children’s book, Goha the Wise Fool. Clearly I don’t even know my own content, but Johnson-Davis’ creativity sure is prodigious!

Readers: Adult

Published: 1983, 1985 (United Kingdom), 1987 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, .Translation, Egyptian

Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books by Susan L. Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

Surely this deserves some sort of supreme irony award: Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s recently ousted president, was one of the leading champions of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, completed in 2002 where the greatest library of the ancient world – the original Library of Alexandria – once stood some 2300 years ago. One of the 21st century’s most corrupt despots was also a major supporter of cultural enlightenment and intellectual exchange. Go figure.

As Mubarak’s power came crashing down during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the peaceful protests-that-soon-turned-violent threatened the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “Our Alexandria Library, built on the ashes of the ancient, famous one, is the most modern building in all of Egypt,” an unnamed narrator reports. “We could not let our Alexandria Library burn!”

“Maybe it was the noise of peaceful people, demanding freedom. But maybe the people were so angry that they would hurt each other, hurt me, or hurt our library!” Fearful of what could happen, the library’s director, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, implored, “‘There is nothing that prevents anybody from destroying this building with all its treasures, except the will of the people.’”

The young marchers took charge, first surrounding the building, then one by one, created a human barrier by “all holding hands, protecting the library.” By that simple act of reaching out, “we all protected our Bibliotheca Alexandrina, once upon a time not a long time ago, [so that] the library still stands today holding all of our stories.” Library director Serageldin makes clear his grateful admiration “[t]o the great youth of Egypt, the leaders of the Egyptian revolution of 25 January 2011,” in an open letter on the library’s website.

Co-author Susan L. Roth seems to have been preparing to be this story’s storyteller for years before the events actually even happened: the library’s protective human barrier bears striking resemblance to Roth’s Let’s Holds Hands project which collects children’s self-portraits – “ambassador[s] of friendship,” as she calls them – from all over the world and joins them virtually. In the book’s opening spread, the blackboard behind the librarian displays a snippet of the collaged self-portraits from Roth’s empowering project, clearly a tribute to all young people everywhere who are willing to stand up, hold hands, and make change happen together.

Get inspired: take the hand of your own “ambassador of friendship” and go enjoy (and protect) your own libraries (and librarians!) everywhere.

Readers: Children

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Nonfiction, Egyptian, Nonethnic-specific

The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me by Maged Zaher

For those of you who know me, this is no surprise: poetry is my literary Achilles’ heel. But my contrary nature occasionally gets brave enough to try again, and the few times I eke out some level of comprehension, you’ll read about it here. [Any illumination offered will be much appreciated and, even more so, encouraged: Please don't make me beg.]

So a (renowned) poet friend alerted me to this slim collection when I mentioned that contemporary Egypt was my latest literary destination for my other major project, 10×10: Educate Girls | Change the World. The tiny book itself is an exquisitely bound creation – designed by Allison Hanabusa, a just-out-of-college artist clearly talented far beyond her youth – that is as much about its sparse content as the experiences not included, missing, forgotten, overlooked. I’m still not quite sure if I should read it as one epic piece or many related snippets … I decided (perhaps because of my penchant for prose) to go with the former.

Defying categorization, Revolution is part travelogue, part mocking commentary, part surprised questioning, part cultural rediscovery. Over not-quite 70 pages, the Seattle-based Maged Zaher journeys twice to his native Cairo, his travel commencing six months after the Egyptian Revolution initially erupted in January 2011. “The revolution happened and you didn’t call me,” he expounds.

Like most of the world, Zaher’s revolutionary participation happened virtually, from a great distance: “if you follow the attached link / The state will happily deliver its violence to your computer screen.” Zaher seems to both channel and contrast the oft-cited 1970 poem by Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which demands immediacy: “You will not be able to stay home, brother / You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out / … The revolution will be no re-run brothers; / The revolution will be live.”

Zaher’s transnational identity makes him both insider and other in both the U.S. and Egypt: “It is Cairo,” he writes during his first return. “So I am up all night / Texting flawed translations.” His multi-lingual, postponed participation of what happened in his homeland is both privileged and distanced, as he questions, “What would it look like without this second language”? He watches with sharp eyes the latest mutations of “a city under heavy rebranding,” complete with “bearded men / And lovers / Walking to McDonald’s / (The one next to the armored vehicle).” He finds himself in a “coffee shop,” “[s]urrounded by judgmental cops / And fear of imagined violence / … As I am watching the world go digital.”

Fear looms. Uncertainty remains certain. But that ubiquitous digital connection will make sure that the next revolution, every revolution, will be televised, an infinite loop playing over and over again, live participation ever optional.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Poetry, Egyptian, Egyptian American

The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames

Cleopatra: “Serpent of the Nile” by Mary Fisk Pack, illustrated by Peter Malone
Agrippina: “Atrocious and Ferocious” by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Peter Malone
Mary Tudor: “Bloody Mary” by Gretchen Maurer, illustrated by Peter Malone
Catherine de’ Medici: “The Black Queen” by Janie Havemeyer, illustrated by Peter Malone
Marie Antoinette: “Madame Deficit” by Liz Hockinson, illustrated by Peter Malone
Cixi: “The Dragon Empress” by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Peter Malone

From the publishers of last year’s fabulous The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses comes the next sixsome of history-making, mold-breaking women who clearly made and lived by their own rules, judgments be cast aside. The lives of these dastardly dames are filled with so many surprises and shockers that even savvy adults will surely enjoy moments of ‘I didn’t know that …’

Although her Greek Ptolemy family had ruled Egypt for over 250 years, Cleopatra was the first Ptolemy to actually speak Egyptian, just one of the nine languages she spoke fluently. Her brilliance made her beautiful, in spite of what her contemporaries recorded as her “severe cheekbones, a hooked nose, and a jutting chin.” As fitting for Egyptian royalty at the time, Cleopatra’s first partner was her younger brother; she was 18, her brother 10 when their father died and left the siblings in charge.

Born almost a century later, Agrippina was distantly related by association to Cleopatra: Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of Rome’s first emperor, Octavian (aka Augustus), who was the grand-nephew and heir of Julius Caesar, who was Cleo’s lover (and father of her first child) between her brother/husband and dashing Mark Anthony. Got all that? Agrippina sure had wickedly royal intentions, but growing up and into all that court intrigue (she was the sister, wife, and even mother of three different Roman emperors), she surely learned (and survived as long as she could) by example!

And we thought religion-ignited terrorism was a modern invention! Mary Tudor had us beat by half a millennium, overseeing the burning, hacking, quartering of Protestants in an attempt to restore Catholicism to English borders. As the daughter of church-splitting Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon (the daughter of überCatholics Isabella and Ferdinand of Spanish Inquisition fame), Mary never got over Daddy’s divorce and even worse, his marrying non-Catholic Anne Boleyn without the Pope’s blessing. Amazingly, stepmama Anne was Catherine’s maid of honor!

Born three years after Bloody Mary, Catherine de’ Medici also spent her life fighting Protestantism, this time in her adopted France where the Florentine-born, grand-niece of Pope Clement VII married the would-be King Henry II (at age 14). Both the ruling Catholics and the growing French Protestants, called Huguenots, were downright evil to each other – all in the name of God, of course. Leading the most vicious, bloody charge was Queen Catherine (one of her trusted advisors was Nostradamus!), determined to keep her Catholic Medici line going, going, going … until they were finally gone, gone, gone.

Another foreign-born French royal, Marie Antoinette, didn’t actually say “Let them eat cake,” but she didn’t care too much about her common subjects. Pretty and spoiled, she wasn’t the brightest bulb in the court (more or less illiterate, speaking only broken French), but then hubby Louis XVI was no prince charming either. She did bring croissants with her from her native Vienna, “created by Viennese bakers to celebrate a victory against the Turks”: crescent, Islam, Turkish flag, get it? So ‘let them eat croissants’ would have been more accurate.

Brutal machinations know no borders, as the final dame moves us to China, where Cixi was born a commoner and rose from royal concubine to Imperial Consort by birthing the emperor’s only son. When that son eventually ascended the throne (at age 5), she named herself Dowager Empress and took tight control. Her greedy misuse of power would eventually earn her a historical place “as the woman who brought a dynasty crashing to its knees”: at her death at age 72, she had outlived three emperors, a 260-year dynasty, and 5,000 years of imperial rule.

With six different writers this time around – the Dames‘ series editor and Agrippina author Shirin Yim Bridges wrote the entire Real Princesses series herself! – the tone and structure here are understandably not as uniform: for example, two dames get a truth vs. reputation comparison that would have been appreciated for all six. That said, single illustrator Peter Malone uses photographs, paintings, historical documents, and his own artwork to give all six titles a definitive look and feel (gory blood splatters and all!).

Other minor quibbles: given how interrelated all the western royals were and continue to be, a family tree would surely have been appreciated; the dames’ timeline included in each book could have used both birth and death years; and, as with each of the Princesses, bibliographies would certainly have been appreciated.

Overall, though? These dastardly dames definitely deserve your attention. They might be examples of how not to be, but then, as Harvard history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s award-winning, oft-quoted book title goes, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. True that!

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Chinese, Egyptian, European

Gazelle Tracks by Miral Al-Tahawy, translated by Anthony Calderbank

The slim, startling volume begins with an aged, family photograph which essentially contains the contents of the pages that follow … that is, the single picture holds the thousands of words that circumscribe Muhra’s story, past and present.

Muhra, a young woman of Bedouin descent, is one of the last of a sprawling family who for centuries once controlled vast holdings throughout the Egyptian Delta, including slaves whose descendants are still referred to by older family as “the slave of Clan Minazi,” regardless of the generations-ago abolition of human ownership. With political and cultural shifts, the Minazi family that once enjoyed the company of the powerful and royal, has dwindled to but a few members, some scattered, some lost.

With the remaining photographs that tenaciously hang on the walls of her grandfather’s ancestral home, and later her mother’s, Muhra tracks her own history through the voiceless faces of her ancestors. She shares the tragedy of her enigmatic mother, who is perhaps not the woman who gave birth to her, and to her estranged father whose memories of glory and influence as a world-class expert on birds of prey become both myth and tragedy.

To read Gazelle Tracks is a lyrical experience of discovery on at least two levels: its sparseness belies an important historical glimpse into a little-known (especially in the West) once-powerful Arab society, as well as a delicate unraveling of a family saga preserved in printed photographs but mutely trapped in dying memories.

Miral Al-Tahawy’s latest title, Brooklyn Heights (scheduled for publication in English translation in January 2012), recently won the prestigious 2010 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and is currently shortlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, also known as the Arab Booker and considered the most important literary prize in the Arab world. Without a doubt, Al-Tahawy is a major Arab voice to play close attention to, and surely one we will be lucky to (need to) continue to hear from in the West.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Arab, Egyptian

Maryam’s Maze by Mansoura Ez Eldin, translated by Paul Starkey

Here I go again starting with a book backwards … in the ending “Translator’s Note,” Paul Starkey writes, “Readers of Maryam’s Maze who are already familiar with the author’s short stories will quickly feel themselves at home in this more extended work, which again reveals the author’s preoccupation with the relationship between dreams and reality, and by the influence of the past on the present.” So what that seems to suggest is that to read Mansoura Ez Edin’s earlier stories might better illuminate this, her debut novel. Perhaps that’s where I went wrong … because reading the novel alone was neither familiar nor illuminating.

Two related narratives are intertwined here. Each chapter is preceded by an epigraph-like short paragraph on its own page, presented in a different font. Woven together, these mini-pages reveal an elliptical story about a wealthy, mythic figure named El Tagi who builds a remarkable palace, the construction of which causes the suffering and death of many others.

The chapters comprise Maryam’s story, who wakes up one day after a violent dream of her own murder, only to find herself in a strange bed in a Cairo apartment, seemingly living a life not her own. Desperate for answers, she seeks out her journalist boyfriend in his office, only to find he doesn’t work there – even his bylines have disappeared from the newspaper. She next rushes to the girls’ hostel where she is convinced she went to bed the night before, where she shared a room with another young woman, only to find all traces of their life together completely vanished.

Moving abruptly from Cairo to an unnamed village, the next chapter begins to unravel Maryam’s past as a descendant of El Tagi. Her childhood was spent in that blood-stained palace, overshadowed by extended family, so many of whom had disturbing personalities and self-complicated lives. Told through disjointed flashbacks, Maryam’s enigmatic past is surely maze-like, populated by both the living and dead, although which is which is not always clear.

“What the woman had said meant she had either lost her memory or her reason. How could time have become so horribly confused?” Maryam asks herself, still unable to distinguish between past and present, dream and reality. Indeed, both Maryam and the reader must work equally hard to construct her multi-layered, uncertain story.

The slim volume is not without memorable, beautifully-rendered passages – about gardens redolent with heady fragrances, fickle young love that begins with air kisses and ends in betrayal, the mourning of lost innocence, and so on. But even in spite of Starkey’s supplemental explanatory notes at novel’s end, Maryam’s Maze ultimately remains lost in translation.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Arab, Egyptian

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

If, like me, you don’t like to know the whole story before you read the book (!!), then skip the family tree in these opening pages. Don’t even glance at it. You can always go back to it after.

Ahdaf Soueif‘s 1999 Booker Prize shortlister (J. M. Coetzee took his second Booker with Disgrace that year) is a cross-cultural, cross-historical, cross-generational saga about two pairs of lovers a century apart. While Map traverses time, the story’s ‘now’ is 1997 Egypt … pre-9/11, pre-Tahrir Square which, read in 2011, adds another compelling layer to its already epic scope.

Soueif makes the intriguing choice to narrate the lovers’ courtships with a fifth, omniscient voice: Amal, recently separated from her British husband, leaves her London life to return to her native Egypt. At the behest of her world-famous, globe-trotting conductor brother ‘Omar, Amal is visited by Isabel, an American journalist from New York. Isabel arrives with a large trunk filled with letters, diaries, artifacts, memories that once belonged to a bold Englishwoman, Lady Anna Winterbourne, who outlived her own riveting love story.

Just before the turn of the 20th century, Lady Anna arrived in Cairo as a grieving widow, a member of the British elite in colonial Egypt. Unwilling to accept the limitations of being female, she donned men’s clothing to expand her explorations. Her independence led to mistaken abduction, which surprisingly led her to the gallant (and powerful) Sharif, the love of her life. The remnants of her Egyptian adventures preserved in that leather trunk will bring together her great-granddaughter Isabel with her beloved ‘Omar.

“[T]his is not my story,” Amal insists, and yet she immediately recognizes both pairs of lovers: “… if I come into [the story] at all, it is only as my own grandmother did a hundred years ago, when she told the story of her brother’s love.”

The core of Soueif’s novel is undoubtedly Anna and Sharif’s defiant relationship, which Soueif infuses with captivating details, judiciously revealed to keep the reader turning the pages. Her attempts, however, to weave in the politics then and now, feel clumsily intrusive. Without minimizing the grave importance of historical context – Anna and Sharif’s love story surely would not have been nearly as memorable without the tumultuous political backdrop – the combination of politics and romance stalls more often than not. That said, “unpacked, unwrapped, unravelled” through Amal’s fifth lens, Anna and Sharif and Isabel and ‘Omar prove to be an enigmatic foursome.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1999

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Arab, Egyptian

The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Albert Nguyen

Hatshepsut of Egypt
Artemisia of Caria
Sorghaghtani of Mongolia
Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Kirman
Isabella of Castile
Nur Jahan of India

Happy birthday to the world’s most famous queen (still!) who turns 85 today, making her son the oldest prince-waiting-to-be-king in British history. Next week, on April 29, Queen E2 will be welcoming another princess into the family when Prince William makes a royal of Kate Middleton.

Let’s hope Princess Kate has some good role models as she figures out her impending future … someone in the royal inner circle might do well to share this refreshing Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses with her! In addition to that fabulous title – no fluffy, wait-for-my-Prince-Charming, shrinking pink Disney princesses here! – this historic series covers the lives of six exceptional, independent women. Girl power all the way!

Written by award-winning Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Albert Nguyen using a mixture of photographs, maps, period art reproductions, and original paintings, each of the six titles tells not only the story of a historically important woman-in-charge. but offers a pronunciation guide, a map of where she lived and ruled, as well as contextual information as to what she ate and what she probably wore. Presented in a chatty, contemporary tone to engage today’s younger readers, the series makes these seemingly faraway stories both timely and entertaining.

Move over King Tut and pay homage to Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first woman Pharaoh, who ruled (dressed in Pharoah drag with breasts bared!) for 22 flourishing years. Artemisia defied all gender conventions in ancient Greece and commanded great warships as an admiral. Sorghaghtani was instrumental in uniting and growing the vast empire claimed by her father-in-law, the great Genghis Khan.

Qutlugh Terkan Khatun survived numerous husbands, the last one who left her a Persian kingdom she ruled with renowned wisdom and justice. Isabella (a distant ancestor of our birthday royal … she was Henry VIII’s mother-in-law temporarily while he was married to her daughter Catherine) ruled equally with her King Ferdinand, and not only united Spain but also underwrote that fateful three-ship expedition led by Christopher Columbus. And Nur Jahan (whose niece would be memorialized forever in the Taj Mahal) ruled the Moghul Empire, all the while helping to better the lives of women!

Each book stands alone, but the six together pack a historical girl-power punch. A few minor quibbles: a bibliography or some sort of reference section would have been enriching, photo and art captions would have been appreciated, and some of the reproduced works seem graphically inappropriate for such young readers (eek! two men sawing a prisoner in half from the head down, complete with splattering blood!). And I did wonder why a few of our thinking princesses were so pale: if Artemisia was from what is now southwest Turkey, would she have been so blond and fair-skinned? What about a rather pink Hatshepsut in Egypt many millennia before sunblock? Hmmmm …

If the pictures seems a bit washed out, the writing thankfully is not. Bridges is sure to add the bad and ugly, as needed. Hatshepsut’s post-death mystery, Artemisia’s brutal war tactics, the horrors of Isabella’s Spanish Inquisition, and Nur Jahan’s behind-the-screens political machinations are all included.

Strength and accomplishment certainly came with high prices! Without turning a blind eye, Bridges shows history is filled with inspiring feminist lessons … and not just for princesses, either!

Next up: The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames forthcoming in Fall 2011! Stay tuned!

Tidbit: Back when my teen daughter was a be-bopping little toddler, her favorite song was “Cinderella” – no, no, no, it’s NOT what you’re expecting. If The Thinking Girls ever needed a soundtrack, they’d do well with this one. I was just recalling how great the lyrics were, and this link landed in my inbox for which I am SOOO gleefully thankful:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FHzp9d-l7k .

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, Chinese American, Egyptian, European, Indian, Mongolian, Persian, Turkish