True confession: I was homeschooled. Not for all of my primary and secondary school years, but for a substantial chunk of time. Third grade through eighth grade, to be exact. In non-US parlance, that’s from age 8 to 14. Reason? At age 7, the local public school system tested children to see who they would place in the ‘gifted’ program, which was an advanced track of study and which prepared you for all sorts of ‘honors’ courses.
The test was an IQ test, I think. It was hard. There were questions about how many different ways you could use a fork. I didn’t make the cut. Cue: horror! My mom, who’d been helping in the classroom, was a tiny bit bewildered. Why didn’t I qualify? (it’s obvious to me now that she thought I was a little child genius…luckily I know better. ha!) That led to her think about education and what sort of things she wanted her kids to have access to. In the end, she took all of us out of school and started our home education.
That’s a brave step, no matter who you are. Thankfully, my mom has a Master’s degree and knew or got advice on how to take advantage of curriculum fairs, cultural exhibits, science programs and anything that might help. The result was memorable. It was fun. And it was definitely the start of my love affair with books and reading. I remember one school year when my mom was particularly frazzled by trying to teach my brothers to read – she just gave me a stack of books, and told me if I finished those, to come back for more.
But let’s get this back to one of my favorite reads. I was 11 when mom/teacher decided we were going to do an Ancient World unit. We started with Egypt and worked our way through Greece and Rome. All of us kids remember those lessons vividly: salt-dough relief maps, sugar cube pyramids, writing plays about Greek myths and acting out the Punic Wars. I mean, super fun, right? And we had some awesome fiction and non-fiction books to go with the themes.
One of those books was Mara, Daughter of the Nile. It’s an adventure featuring a feisty slave-girl in Ancient Egypt. It has action, intrigue, mummies, tombs and scarabs. In other words, it’s perfect for a fanciful eleven year-old steeped in the world of the Pharoahs.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile is one of Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s (author of Newbery Award-winning The Golden Goblet, Moccasin Trail and The Moorchild) most beloved stories. It chronicles the adventures of an ingenious Egyptian slave girl who undertakes a dangerous assignment as a spy in the royal palace of Thebes, in the days when Queen Hatshepsut ruled. Pulled in different directions by her head and her heart, Mara must decide what her role will be, who to believe and who to trust. The fate of Egypt depends on it!
I think Mara, for me, was one of the first characters whose experiences I wanted to crawl into and live for myself. I didn’t know what she would do next, but she was brave and she was different and she lived in a time I could imagine with my eyes open or shut. I dreamt of being Mara. I also appreciated the richly-drawn historical background. There’s nothing like an Eloise Jarvis McGraw novel to plant you deeply in the past (unless it’s an Elizabeth George Speare novel). The details, the scenery, the cultural differences are all there – and yet it’s not clumsy. It’s believable.
On top of that, I still remember the flow of the prose. Action and adventure written in such a way that you find yourself savoring each word. What fun this book was! I haven’t reread Mara in a while, and I think it may be time. After all, you can definitely measure the absolute popularity of a book when the 1985 version remains in print and available to this day! I bought myself a new copy only this summer.
Recommended for: fans of historical fiction, Newbery books, classic children’s fiction, Ancient Egypt, mystery, and spunky, out-of-the-ordinary heroines.