Monday, 23 July 2018

Book Review: 'Secrets of a Sun King' by Emma Carroll

There's not been a prominent children's novel set in Egypt for a while, so when I heard that Emma Carroll's latest book was to have an Egyptian theme I was keen to read it - especially with curriculum planning in mind.

The story simultaneously follows the adventures of Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, a young girl's receipt of a cursed canopic jar and an ancient Egyptian girl's account of Tutankhamen's last days. These are expertly woven into a story exploring friendship, family, trust and secrets. Beginning in London, but, unsurprisingly, leading to Egypt, the mystery of the curse unravels as Lily, Tulip and Oz daringly arrange to return the jar to where it should be, following clues from an ancient writer and relying on local knowledge (and of course camels) to help them navigate the dangers of the desert.

Although 'Secrets of a Sun King' can be classed as historical fiction, it has a very contemporary feel. Carroll uses the post-Great War political landscape of women's rights to thrust strong female leads into the limelight, a father in the book even voicing his opinion that girls are 'the future'. With gender issues being very much in the limelight, the fact that females take centre-stage in this exciting adventure story seems only right. Whilst some of the language used by the children seems a little anachronistic (it might not be at all, it just sounds very modern) the exploration of the role of women seems to be retrospectively in-keeping with the time.

Also adding to the modern feel is the fact that many of the co-protagonists are very definitely not white, signalling perhaps that representation of ethnic diversity in children's books might be beginning to improve. The recent CLPE publication Reflecting Realities reported that in children's books published in 2017 only 4% of the characters were black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME), so the publication of this book, with its mixed-heritage and Egyptian characters (both ancient and relatively modern) comes at a time when readers might be prompted to seek out some non-white representation.

In fact, Carroll has gone beyond this: there is also an acknowledgement of the historical tendency of the (white) British to act with superiority, including to the point of robbing another country of their treasures. Lil, the main character, realises: 'Being English didn't give me the right to sort out other people's problems, not when they could solve them themselves.' And the characters of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon are not portrayed positively - this is a challenge to our general view of archaeologists and explorers as infallible gentlemanly heroes.

All of these issues make this a great reason to read this with children, especially as part of history work in school. The potential exploration of moral issues surrounding Carter's discovery and working practices will certainly make for a more in-depth way of learning about the ancient Egyptians - particulary good for older primary children who are tackling the topic.

Having said this, teachers may want to be aware of one particular scene in the book where the children use a Ouija board. The scene seems unnecessary and doesn't seem to fit with the idea that the pharaoh's curse may or may not be able to be explained by natural phenomena, or at least that the children are sure of the curse without such overt messages. The fact that the children do not seem scared or shocked by the fact that a spirit communicates with them using the board is strange. Given that this scene is not referred to again in the book, teachers could choose to skip this part if reading aloud.

'Secrets of the Sun King' is a fantastic up-to-date novel for key stage two readers and, far from being a curse, is a gift to any teacher or parent hoping to hook their children into an exploration of the ancient Egyptian times, as well as into a historical period where archaeological discovery made headlines. Superbly written and fast-paced, children will love in equal parts the characters and plot of this excellent book.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this; I’ve literally just read that chapter, and was concerned that it would mean I couldn't use this with my year four class next half term as I had intended. Reassuring that you felt it was not necessary to the story and we can just skip that chapter. Other than that I’m hugely enjoying it too and think it will be great for our whole class guided reading sessions.

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