Stories of ancient Egypt! Comic book-style! Easy-to-read! Curriculum match! Funny! Ancient Egypt: Tales of Gods and Pharaohs retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams seems like the perfect book to supplement your curriculum. I wish I could say that it was, but this book just has too many problems for me to want to recommend it to anyone.
Ancient Egypt: Tales of Gods and Pharaohs (Published 2011) is a collection of folktales and actual histories from ancient Egypt. There are nine different stories, four that are focused on the gods of Egypt, and five that focus on the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt. “Ra and the Creation” focuses on how the earth was created, from the ancient Egypt perspective. “Isis and the Cobra” digs into how Isis and Osiris were able to steal the crown away from Ra. In the early days of the earth, the Gods were also the Pharaohs. The well-known story of Seth chopping up his brother’s body is told in “Seth and the Evil one.” Osiris’s son gets his revenge on Seth in the story “Horus and the Avenger.” After Horus, the honor of being Pharaoh was passed on to humans. The tale of one of the first human Pharaohs is retold in “Pharaoh Zoser and the Great Famine.” Pharaoh Hatshepsut is one of the most interesting stories of ancient Egypt, and Marcia Williams retells it in “Hatshepsut: A Great Queen for Egypt.” We are given three more stories after this, “Prince Thutmose and the Sphinx,” “Pharaoh Tutankhamen,” and “Cleopatra, the Last Pharaoh of Egypt.” The book ends with a cartoon map of Egypt for the reader to see.
Taking my children’s literature class has taught me to be wary of stories that detail other cultures or things from history that lack any sort of author’s note or explanation. The author gives us nine stories of ancient Egypt, and yet we don’t get a single sentence anywhere in the book that gives this story context for the reader. How are children who are reading this supposed to know that the story of “Ra and the Creation” is a folktale, while Hatshepsut is a real person that we know existed? If you are going to write a book that gives so much history about a culture, I think you owe it to that culture to give a little bit of an introduction or author’s note at the end. This book could have really benefited from some endpages that discuss the aspects of ancient Egypt that were described in this book.
Marcia Williams has written a lot of retellings, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Charles Dickens and Friends, Tales from Shakespeare, More Tales from Shakespeare, The Elephant’s Friend and Other Tales from Ancient India, Greek Myths, and The Romans: Gods, Emperors, and Dormice. I find I have more faith in an author that seems to have found a niche—one culture that they regularly explore. I think that authors who explore a variety of cultures can certainly do a fantastic job of representing those cultures, but it must be more difficult. After reading Marcia Williams, however, I don’t think she has taken the time to do this culture a great service.
What bothers me the most about this book is that it makes ancient Egypt folktales funny. I like to laugh just as much as the next person, but the humor in this book is almost mocking the ancient Egypt. For example, there is one frame that reads underneath, “In the reign of Ra, Nut and Geb gave birth to the clever goddess Isis. She married her brother Osiris, the likely heir to Ra’s crown.” In the picture above, Isis states “If we marry, I’ll be your queen!” Geb replies with “Good plan. Keep it in the family!” I get it, it makes this incestuous relationship somehow funny. I also feel, though, that it makes a mockery of a culture’s ancient traditions. Later in the book, there are two frames of Horus. He is discussing how he wants to keep the crown. There is one frame where he is kissing his crown and stating “We’ll just have to kill him, won’t we, my precious?” Really, a Lord of the Rings reference in a book about ancient Egypt? Throughout the book, I kept finding all of the jokes completely unfunny. The children who are reading this book are of an age where they have not had much exposure to other cultures. Should their first exposure really be with a book that invites them to laugh at the ancient beliefs of a culture?
Beyond just making fun of it, I am not sure if everything Marcia Williams has written in this text is correct. She has given me nothing that details her research or where she could her information, so I just have to take her at her word. In the story about Cleopatra, Marcia Williams presents us with a Marc Antony that kills himself because he was betrayed by Cleopatra. In every story I’ve ever known, Marc Antony kills himself because he thought Cleopatra was already dead. If she is wrong about that one fact, what else is she wrong about? I do not know everything about ancient Egypt, but I do know enough to know that she got it mostly right. But if she got it mostly right, where did she get things wrong? Did she intentionally change parts of these stories without telling us? How in the world can I trust you if I have no idea what you have done to these stories and histories?!?!
I looked the book up on Amazon, and it has 10 review. There were 9 reviews that gave it 5 stars, and one review that gave it 4 stars. I’m apparently in the minority, because a lot of people seem to love this book. If you do pick it up, and if you do find that you love it, I would love to hear your thoughts!