8.30.2010

The Sally Series written and illustrated by Stephen Huneck


Sally's Great Balloon Adventure is the last in a series of books about a curious black Labrador retriever written and illustrated  by 
Stephen Huneck. If you know nothing else about Stephen Huneck before you read a Sally book, by the time you reach the last page you will know that he had a deep love and understanding of dogs. If you are not a dog person, don't stop reading just yet. As many people
who have had the pleasure of caring for dogs and toddlers (and young children) at the same time will tell you, there are a lot of similarities between the two. Kids get this and that is why they love these books and Sally. Dogs (and kids) follow their noses, whether it leads them into trouble
or not. They don't really have a firm grasp on right and wrong, good and bad, peace and destruction and sometimes they get into trouble and need a little help. And, ultimately, I think it is much more interesting to a child to read a book with an unintentionally misbehaving dog as the protagonist than it is to read a book about a little kid.


When Sally's family takes her to a hot air balloon festival as a special treat, they have no idea what they are in for. Smelling fried chicken in a picnic basket that is being loaded into a hot air balloon, Sally decides to investigate. A misplaced tug on a rope sends the balloon up into the air and the crowd below goes crazy. But not Sally. In one of my favorite pages in the book, Sally is resting with her nose right next to the picnic basket and the text reads, "Instead of being scared, Sally feels lucky to be alone with such delicious-smelling chicken." It is this dedication to the chicken that keeps Sally calm and safe throughout the ride until, drifting closer to the ground, her family's yells can reach her.


What are they saying? "Tug-of-war! Tug-of-war, Sally!" When she finally hears this, Sally jumps up and tugs at the rope that is hanging from the balloon. As the warm air escapes, the balloon descends and her ecstatic family and friends welcome her back to earth. Finding the picnic basket full of chicken, they take turns feeding it to her and the book ends with a full tummy and smile for Sally.












Stephen Huneck died in January of this year and, while his Sally books and his original artwork - mostly prints and carvings - will be popular for years to come, his greatest legacy is the Dog Chapel that he built entirely by hand on Dog Mountain, a dog park, in Vermont. Since it opened in 2000, visitors have brought their dogs to play on the grounds and taken solace inside the chapel, the walls of which are covered with notes and photos from dog owners who have lost a pet. A sign in front of the Dog Chapel reads, "Welcome: All Creeds, All Breeds, No Dogmas Allowed." For more information on his other life works and more pictures of the Dog Chapel, read my review of his last book, Even Bad Dogs Go to Heaven, which features Huneck's art work and photos of the Dog Chapel and is the perfect read for a bereaved pet owner or anyone who believes that dogs have a special place in human life.







































Even Bad Dog's Go to Heaven: More from the Dog Chapel, written and illustrated by Stephen Huneck






















Wood carver, painter, print maker and carpenter, Stephen Huneck was a talented artist, his inspiration and passion coming from the dogs in his life. For those of you who don't have or have never had a dog to love, this review may be of little interest to you, but if you have ever been lucky enough to love a dog, keep reading. Huneck shared this love of dogs with children through his series of picture books featuring Sally, the black Labrador retriever. He shared his passion with adults through his creation of Dog Mountain, a park in Vermont dedicated to dogs and their owners that is also the home of the Dog Chapel. As the sign out front says, "Welcome All Creeds, All Breeds, No Dogmas Allowed."








Huneck built the chapel by hand and decorated most of the interior with his carvings and artwork. The remaining wall space is dedicated to notes and pictures left by dog owners. As Huneck writes in the introduction to Even Bad Dogs Go to Heaven, "Since dogs are family members, too,I thought it would be wonderful if we could create a ritual space to help achieve closure and lessen the pain when we lose a beloved dog." And, while grieving for a lost dog is an aspect of the Dog Chapel, Huneck felt it was "equally important to celebrate the joy of living and the bond between dogs and their owners." To this end, he put in hiking trails, ponds and an agility course for dogs to play on and twice a year there are Dog Parties on Dog Mountain. For a moving look at what Huneck created on Dog Mountain, click the link to the radio program Here and Now. Reporters George Hicks and Susan Hagner visited Dog Mountain on the day of the memorial for Stephen Huneck and the story and photos are amazing.

Inside the Dog Chapel






My Dog's Brain was Huneck's first book and in it he illustrates the predicaments, pleasures, and appetites that make up a dog’s life, whether it’s sleeping on the couch, stealing a lick from an ice cream cone, or barking for no good reason. His dogcentric philosophy is sweet and simple, much like dogs themselves. His signature woodblock painting style is bright and folksy with a sense of humor. This characteristic style is carried out through all of Huneck's books, forming a loosely woven story. Where as The Dog Chapel featured the story of Huneck's recovery from illness and how he decided to erect the Dog Chapel, coupled with his paintings and thoughts, Even Bad Dogs Go to Heaven is clearly a love letter to our canine companions. The gratitude, acceptance and graciousness that Huneck gained from his illness are evident on every page and dog lovers will bond with this book immediately. Really, you should think about buying two copies since these pictures would look great framed and hanging on walls throughout any home.




Now, I am going to take my two dogs, one of whom has been lying at my feet as I write, for a walk.




You Will Never Have to Sleep Alone



8.23.2010

Fablehaven, written by Brandon Mull, illustrated by Brandon Dorman,351 pp, RL 4

Since Brandon Mull's first Fablehaven book hit the shelves in 2006, the series has been a steady seller. Paired with the busiest illustrator on the block, Brandom Dorman, the books are hard to take your eyes off of - if fantasy is your thing. And it is my thing. I have been meaning to read this book since it first came out and had the pleasure of giving it my full attention over the course of a four hour plane ride.

Fablehaven falls squarely, and nicely, into the realm of the fairy story and Brandon Mull definitely brings some new ideas to this mythical world that are both entertaining and intriguing. Sent to stay with reclusive grandparents they barely know, fourteen year old Kendra and her eleven year old brother Seth are understandably apprehensive. Things only seem to get worse when they reach the estate and find a long list of rules and an absent Grandmother Ruth on top of it all. Even so, the beauty of the grounds and the gorgeous butterflies that flock to it, the multitude of toys, games, crafts and the gentle chicken, Goldilocks, in their attic room as well as the presence of the gentle, talented caretaker Lena (who was once a naiad who gave up her magical status to marry Patton Burgess, a caretaker who fell in love with her in the 1800s) make things a bit easier to tolerate for Seth and Kendra. But, every adventure story needs a rule breaker and Seth is the one to take up the role. Along with his cereal-box-emergency-kit, Seth takes off into the woods and strays from the path where he meets a grizzled witch gnawing on a knot in a rope with an almost toothless maw. Although he is too astute to be taken in by her tricks, Seth angers her and is pelted by invisible foes as he flees her shack. The children later learn that the witch was once the wife of a former caretaker of Fablehaven who was so entranced by the dark magic on the grounds that she became a witch. For her crimes, she is imprisoned on the grounds, bound by thirteen magical knots that can only be undone by a human's breath. Her rope now only holds two knots.

At the same time Seth is getting into trouble, Kendra is sleuthing out the mystery of the keys that Grandpa has left her with. As she searches the attic room for keyholes to fit the tiny keys, her discoveries lead to more tiny keys and more hunting for keyholes. Finally, she uncovers a secret journal that is entirely blank except for one small entry, written sideways near the binding on one of the last pages of the book. "Drink the milk" is all it says. For those of you with sharp eyes, you will find this very phrase near the end of the Fablehaven book itself! It turns out that the milk on the estate has magical properties that allow the drinker to see things for what they really are. This means that, after stealing a bit of milk and testing it on Seth, Seth and Kendra can now see the the butterflies, dragonflies and other bugs buzzing in the garden for the fairies that they really are. Their discoveries grant them entry into the secret world that Grandpa Stan, Lena and Dale, the other caretaker, inhabit. Fablehaven, it seems, is a sanctuary for magical creatures of all sorts with human caretakers assuring their peace and safety. The children learn that there are magical sanctuaries all over the world, some more secret than others, Fablehaven being one of them. And, one of the biggest days of celebration and mayhem for the magical creatures (and danger for humans) is approaching - the summer equinox or midsummer eve. The longest night of the year.

Seth, unable to keep from breaking the rules and inspired by a visit from Maddox Fisk, a fairy broker, decides to trap a fairy and keep her in a jar. Unfortunately, he does not know that keeping a fairy indoors from sunset to sunrise turns it into an imp. Fairies, being the vain, mirror loving creatures that they are, become enraged at being turned into ugly little creatures and exact vengeance on the person responsible. The law of retribution, or reaping what you sow, is one of the most important facets of the treaty between magical creatures and humans that allows them to coexist peacefully, so of course Seth is in for it. What the fairies do to him and how it is undone are brilliant and Mull's writing is vivid and suspenseful. But, this is only the beginning of the action and adventure in the book. The fairies aren't done with Seth and they are back to tempt him into danger - a temptation they make hard to resist - that results in the abduction of Grandpa Stan and Lena. Dale, never of interest to the magical creatures, is turned into a bronze statue. It is up to Kendra and Seth, with surprise help from Goldilocks, to make a dangerous rescue while at the same time thwarting the efforts of the Society of the Evening Star, a rogue group bent on freeing all the magical creatures, dark and light, from the confines (and protection) of the preserves. Headed by Muriel Taggert, the Society of the Evening Star is on the verge of freeing Bahumat, an ancient demon who once ruled the land that Fablehaven in now situated on.


Brandon Mull's first book in this five book series (all books now in print, books 1 - 4 are available in paperback) sets the stage wonderfully for the battle between the evil Society of the Evening Star and the Knights of Dawn that will take place over the next four books. Seth and Kendra clearly have their flaws and strengths that they will have to work with over the next four books. Mull employs magical creatures, such as golems, satyrs, ogres, naiads, demons, milch cows, and many, many others (there is an impressively long list of them on Wikipedia) in traditional and innovative ways. One of my favorite scenes from the book comes at the climactic battle when the fairies, transformed to human sized warriors, confront the army of imps that Muriel has assembled - including the fairy that Seth accidentally turned - and rush at them. Instead of battling them, the fairies kiss the imps, instantly returning them to their former fairy status. Brilliant imagery and brilliant writing. Mull's series falls nicely between Angie Sage's Septimus Heap Series with it's medieval setting and raft of magical creatures, witches and wizards and Cornelia Funke's more mature, complex Inkworld Trilogy where the magical creatures take more of a back seat to the dark hearts of the humans who inhabit her story. Mull's choice to begin his story in contemporary America is also a nice twist to the typical fairy fantasy, although, once you enter the grounds of Fablehaven, you are sucked into the magical world and forget what continent you are on.

Other books in the series are as follows:

Rise of the Evening Star, Grip of the Shadow Plague, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary and Keys to the Demon Prison.



















8.16.2010

Amelia's Notebook written and illustrated by Marissa Moss, RL 4


First, there was Harriet the Spy and her marbled composition book. Next came the amazing Amelia, creation of Marissa Moss. Long before wimpy Greg Heffley's mom thrust a diary upon him, and ages before graphic novels for kids became popular, Marissa Moss created the illustrated diary of Amelia, who is nine in the first title in the series, Amelia's Notebook, and who is writing and drawing as a way to deal the fact that she is moving to a new state, far away from her best friend Nadia. Amelia also records the annoying habits and attributes of her big sister Cleo, of the jelly role nose. Of course, as a journal keeper, Amelia notices (and records) all sorts of interesting details.

With Amelia being nine at the start of the series, (which has seen three different publishers since it first hit the shelves in 1995 - some of you with older girls may remember Amelia's sojourn with the American Girls Company) and the first book being 15 years old now, the content is very age appropriate. Having been published just a few years ahead of the emergence of the word/demographic/marketing tool "tween," Amelia is just a kid in many ways, and a few of her notebooks have playful themes like how to beat boredom, how to fold fortunetellers (the origami kind) and how to make and keep New Year's resolutions. However, as Moss' character ages, so does the content of her books, which tackle familial and social issues in very low-key, realistic ways. After reading several Amelia books, as well as Moss' new series of illustrated journals aimed at boys, Max Disaster, I see her as an experienced and wise friend who really knows how to talk to kids at their level, and not what adults often think is their level. Moss understands how kids think and remembers what it is like to be a kid. At the same time, she has a remarkable ability to step into her stories, either in the form of older sister Cleo, a parent or another kid who just happens to have a flash of wisdom and good advice, and help Amelia through her problems, showing her how to fix things on her own rather than doing it for her. To me, that is the best kind of parenting and teaching you can find and I am happy to have Marissa Moss here to teach my kids a thing or two.


One of the best examples of this parenting/teaching (a quality I bemoaned the lack of in my review of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) comes in Amelia's Science Fair Disaster, which finds Amelia in seventh grade. Having written over twenty Amelia books, Moss divides them between elementary school and middle school, and this division is a good indication of the topics that will come up in the books. In Amelia's 7th-Grade Notebook, she ponders the big questions like, "Should I wear make-up," "Am I pretty?" and "What does it mean to be a 7th grader?" In Amelia's Science Fair Disaster she is in seventh grade and paired with two classmates she barely knows to work on a group project for the school wide science fair. Ever observant, Amelia notes that "group project" really means "that one, maybe two, kids do most of the work and the others do a crummy job, so you end up with something WAY worse than what you could have done by yourself. PLUS you have the misery of nagging, begging and fighting with the other kids, trying to get them to do their share." She goes on to say that she knows this is supposed to be good social training, but really it seems like a "bizarre social experiment for the teacher's entertainment." Below these words is a very funny drawing of three different teachers discussing the best grouping of students for maximum hilarity.


When Amelia gets paired with the kid who always sleeps through class and the girl who asks a million questions, and who also considers Amelia her new best friend, she is overwhelmed - and jealous of her best friend Carly, in a different class and clearly with a better group. Sadie's puppyish enthusiasm and flattering attention towards Amelia make her feel pleased to be thought of as cool and noticed, attributes she only thinks of Carly as having, but she also is confused and upset by Sadie pushing her way into her life. After Carly is stand-offish with Sadie, Amelia decides to try harder to be nice to her but finds it hard to be nice and accommodate to Sadie's quirks and be herself at the same time. When Sadie, over at Amelia's to work on the project, reads Amelia's very PRIVATE notebook, she loses it and screams at her to leave. It is Cleo who steps in to comfort Amelia, echoing Carly's words from earlier in the story and telling her that she has to be firm, but not rude, with a person like Sadie, saying, "You have to be straight with people. You can't be fake with them." Amelia avoids Sadie and tries to finish the project on her own but can't until, with Carly's urging, she contacts Sadie. "I wasn't mean or angry or friendly or chatty. I was pure business," she says of the phone call. Amelia maintains this attitude throughout the rest of their work on the project and Sadie pulls her weight while respecting the boundaries that Amelia has set. Subtle as this may be, I think that this has to be one of the best learning experiences a kid can have. In life, we aren't going to like everybody and we don't have to like everybody, but we do have to work with people we don't like and we do have to respect them. And, most importantly, we have the right to ask them to respect us.

In another notebook from the middle school period, Amelia's Itchy-Twitchy, Lovey-Dovey Summer at Camp Mosquito, she deals with her first crush on a boy - the same boy Carly happens to have a crush on. When Carly convinces Amelia to try out for a spot working on the camp newspaper, she is given the job of cartoonist along with another camper, Luke. Amelia enjoys talking to him about drawing and the comics they are creating and likes having a new friend. Carly likes Luke, too, but as more than a friend and acts differently around him, to the extent of ignoring Amelia. Amelia begins to feel homesick, not for home but for her best friend. The two girls manage to talk it out, agreeing not to be jealous of boyfriends - should they happen - but things get worse anyway. After spending more time with Luke working on the paper, Amelia begins to wish that he was more than a friend to her. She and Carly declare a truce and decide to leave it up to Luke to prove which one of them he likes more by waiting to see who he asks the the dance. While waiting it out, Amelia overhears her college-aged counselors talking about how hard it was to tell if a guy liked you when they were younger. This is an eye opener for Amelia and she shares it with Carly, which eases the blow a bit when Luke shows up to the dance with another girl.

I can't tell you enough how important and wonderful I think Marissa Moss' Amelia books are for young girls and I hope that parents out there with thoughtful, sensitive daughters will find these books and share them with their children. With the rise in popularity of graphic novels and mangas, and the new, very reasonable price of $8.99 for a hardback edition of an Amelia book, these are reasonably priced and perfect for collecting. I know that, despite my love of art and illustration, I often feel rankled by spending $8 or $9 for a graphic novel or manga because I know how fast my kids will read through it. For that much money, I want them reading a book for at least two or three hours! However, my attitude, which I am sure many of you share, needs serious adjustment. Graphic novels and manga are here to stay and will only continue to increase their presence on the shelf at bookstores and libraries. In this digital age when many people, adults and kids, read books on electronic devices, graphic novels and mangas still have a huge presence in the world of paper books and will continue to. Of course, many of these books (including the Wimpy Kid books) started as internet comics and continue as such, but sales have proven that kids still want these books in their hands and they increasingly want to consume their literature with lots and lots of pictures. All I can assume and hope is that these kids are reading their graphic novels and mangas over and over and really getting their money's worth. I am sure that readers of Amelia's Notebooks will do exactly that!

























































































































































8.13.2010

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. La Fevers, illustrated by YokoTanaka, 344 pp, RL 5


Based on my enthusiasm for R.L. La Fevers' series Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist, I should have known how over the moon I would be about her marvelous creation, eleven year old Theodosia Throckmorton, heroine of Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, book one in the series. Besides being set in 1906, the tail end of one of my favorite historical periods, the Victorian Era, as well as the setting for another magnificent heroine, Enola Holmes, younger (and superior) sister to Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes, La Fevers dedicates her first book to, "clever girls everywhere who get tired of feeling like no one's listening." Oddly enough, this happened to be the last page of the book that I read after finishing and mulling over the story. La Fevers is very true her dedication throughout the novel: Theodosia is a clever girl to whom no one listens. But, what made me love this book all the more is the way that La Fevers is able to take this all too common situation and bring about a satisfying, believable resolution that both observes and accepts human nature and allows Theo a greater understanding of the adults in her life.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. Yoko Tanaka provides a rendering of Theo's cat Isis for the heading of each chapter as well as four full page illustrations that are as foggy and sooty as a view through a London window in the winter of 1906 but also eerily illuminating of the story. La Fevers' writing is so rich and detailed that I often found myself wishing for an index of both Victorian and Egyptian terms. I was running to the dictionary to look up "growler," "wadjet eye" (the image of which is used for section breaks within chapters) and "shabti," among many other fascinating words, but maybe this is a good thing for readers to have to do now and again. When we first meet Theo, she is on the trail of Second Assistant Curator Clive Fagenbush at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities, the first being the British Museum. Theo has always felt ill at ease in the museum and, once she was old enough to read, she learned why. The Egyptian artifacts in the museum, all stolen from tombs, are horribly cursed, some worse than others, and Theo can sense this intensely, although her parents think that she is over sensitive and imaginative, qualities that seem like negatives but will eventually be proven positives. Avoiding boarding school due to the oversight of her distracted Egyptologist parents, Theo spends her days reading the ancient volumes on Egyptian history, religion and magic. Not only has she taught herself how to make amulets and other protective objects from these books, but she has also has an elemental understanding of hieroglyphs and the ability to remove curses from the objects that her mother brings into the museum. This is essential because neither her parents or the other curators in the museum believe that anything is the least bit amiss with any of the artifacts. On top of that, it seems that Theo's father and the others rarely even take notice of her, even during her mother's six-month absence. Despite this, but mostly to make sure she can continue in her studies and curse removals, Theo has become the for her father - feeding him jam sandwiches at tea time and slipping protective amulets into his pockets when he refuses to wear gloves while handling the cursed items.

La Fevers does a wonderful job balancing the necessary plot device of any children's literature that involves adventure - the absent parent(s) - with the actual presence of said parent, a rare occurrence anywhere but the end of the story. Once Theo's mother return from Egypt she has to juggle one adult after another and her rotten little brother, Henry. Not only do the adults in her life ignore her, Henry is outright malicious towards Theo, threatening to ruin her unfettered existence at every turn. When the most important find from the tomb of Thutmose III goes missing, Theo decides to follow the only clue there is, Lord Snowthorpe, curator of the British Museum, who somehow knows that the Heart of Egypt has been found and brought back to London. Hot on the trail, Theo's cover is almost blown by the appearance of Henry, who has been following her all along. After a tenuous alliance, the two continue on the trail only to be joined by Sticky Will, a street urchin that Theo encountered trying to lift her father's wallet at the train station. Because she didn't turn him in to the police, Will has taken o the role of protector to Theo, especially after spotting a shadow figure following her home from the train station.

Theo's hunt leads her, Henry and Will to witness what they believe is a murder. When the attackers flee, the dying man whispers a sting of words to Theo and sends her across the street for help and this is where the adventure really takes off. Theo finds herself in the headquarters of a secret society, The Brotherhood of Chosen Keepers, a group dedicated to fighting the Serpents of Chaos. Wary at first, Lord Wigmere, the leader of the organization, is quickly convinced of Theo's unique talents in both spotting curses and breaking them when, on the very secret Sixth Level, she helps stop a virulent curse that is working it's way up a man's arm. Taken into their confidence, Theo is then given an impossible task. Steal back the Heart of Egypt AND return it to the tomb of Thutmose III before the curse on it brings England to ruin. On top of that, the Brotherhood provides Theo almost no help. But, Theo is nothing if not clever. She manages to convince her parents that they need to return to Egypt immediately to find the Was Scepter that has been left behind in the tomb before the Germans do, stow away on the ship that takes them there, have a bit of a sightseeing trip and make her way back to the tomb with the Heart of Egypt tucked safely in a pouch on a cord around her neck. She even discovers a secret room in the tomb.

None of this seems farfetched in the context of the story, and that is a testament both to La Fevers' writing and the character she has created in Theodosia. As Kate Coombs says of Theo in her review of book three in the series over at BookAunt, you know that Theo is going to rule something when she is an adult - a corporation, a country, the world - not because "she's bossy or precocious in a sitcom kind of way, but because she knows what she knows and she doesn't suffer fools gladly." However, Theo also loves her parents deeply. When they come to her rescue at the end of the book, after one of the Serpents of Chaos has been trying to convince her that she is a pebble in their shoes and should join them, she realizes that her father's anger was really his own backwards way of expressing his concern for her wellbeing. As he embraces her in a fierce hug, Theo thinks, "in my father's arms, my world was safe and warm again. The adults in my life were back in charge and I'd let them stay there." After a pause, she adds, "For a bit, anyway." Theo and Henry even manage to work out some of their differences and she realizes that his bad behavior towards her was his way of trying to get "my attention this whole time, just like I'd wanted Mother's and Father's." To top it off, Theo even gets a surprise visit from Lord Wigmere, bringing her the gold and lapis ring of the secret society, thus making her an honorary member of the Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers. Theo is thrilled, but can't stop there and asks Wigmere if she can also get a tattoo of the wadjet eye at the base of her throat like the other members. Shocked, Wigmere refueses and the book ends with the word, "Bother."

One thing I forgot to mention - Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos is FUNNY. You wouldn't expect it, but La Fevers weaves humor and comic relief throughout the story.

The other two books in the series are Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris and Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, which is only in hardcover right now. For a great interview with R.L. La Fevers,
visit writer Ellen Oh's website where her daughter, and fan, conducts the interview.


















R.L. La Fevers Nathaniel Fludd series currently has two books in print, the third will be published in October of 2010.




8.09.2010

The Pharoah's Secret written and illustrated by Marissa Moss, 308 pp, RL: MIDDLE GRADE


As you would expect from an author with a background of richly detailed fictional journals (Amelia's Notebook and Max Disaster), many of which are historical journals, Marissa Moss' first novel is filled with both. Set in Egypt, The Pharoah's Secret is narrated by fourteen year old Talibah and is both a mystery and adventure that unwinds like the Nile.

Talibah's mother died five years earlier and, in his grief, her father, an historian specializing in ancient Egyptian literature, has left her to take care of her brother Adom, now ten. When conferences coincide with the kids' spring break, he finally takes them on that trip to Egypt he and his wife had always planned. Small but strange things begin to happen almost the moment Talibah sets foot in Egypt. In front of their hotel, an old woman presses a cold stone object into her had, but Talibah is so taken with the woman's golden snake bracelet that she does not even notice at first. Through a series of dreams, voices and magnetic attraction to certain places and objects she encounters as she explores Cairo then Luxor, Talibah stumbles her way toward understanding.


The trail begins with Hatshepsut, one of the rare woman pharaohs in Egyptian history, and Senenmut, the architect of, among many other things, her monumental mortuary temple. There is quite a bit of cultural history and family trees to be explained as the web connecting the pharaoh, her daughter, her step-son/nephew and her architect, royal tutor, confidant, companion and possibly lover, Senenemut, becomes an integral part of the story. As Talibah uncovers this information from books and museum visits, she wonders about this, comparing Hatshepsut to Queen Elizabeth. She thinks both rulers represent women who are "proud, intelligent, gifted at politics and empire building," even though they are also women who came by their thrones though the death of or lack of male heirs. Talibah realizes that, while these women may have wanted to marry and have a family, doing so might have jeopardized their reign and made them seem less than legitimate rulers because their power would have passed into the men's hands.



The first three quarters of the book is taken up with Talibah's research as she follows a trail of clues. After a chance meeting with Rashid, the childhood friend of Talibah's father and an ancient Egyptian scholar who has recently discovered the tomb of Hapuseneb, a powerful nobleman from the dynasty of Hatshepsut, the children find themselves traveling to Luxor and the Valley of the Nobles with him while their father stays in Cairo attending conferences. As Talibah uncovers more information about Hatshepsut and her inner circle, both Hapuseneb and Rashid become menacing figures. By the time Talibah has put all the puzzle pieces together and is attempting to give Senenmut's soul a final resting place, Rashid is overcome with his obsession with Hapuseneb and traps the children in a tomb with a cobra.


There is also a wonderful reconciliation scene with Talibah and her father, who have never really discussed the loss of her mother. Significant themes in The Pharaoh's Secret center around the death rituals of the ancient Egyptians and their beliefs surrounding the afterlife and the afterlife of Talibah's mother, who died without fulfilling a task she had been given and without passing the task on to Talibah as she had intended to do when she was old enough to accept it. As she researches Hatshepsut and her life, Talibah finally uncovers the truth about her connection to this history and is able to put it to rest.


Marissa Moss' book is a complex story, rich with historical information and a touch of mystery. As she says in her Author's Note, she had intended to write a work of historical fiction, being the journal of Meru, fictional nephew of Senenmut. Text from Meru's fictional book does appear in the story as one of the artifacts that helps Talibah uncover the truth. The relationship between Talibah and her ten year old brother Adom is an important part of the story as well. Both motherly and protective at times and sisterly, annoyed and even a bit resentful on occasion, Moss does a wonderful job rounding out these characters, their love for each other and their realtionship. In the end it is Adom and Talibah's willingness to share her burden with him and rely on him as he has relied on her that allows her to succeed. While the historical cast of characters often takes a precedence in the The Pharaoh's Secret, it is the familial relationships of the contemporary characters that give the book it's breath of life.