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Book Review: Pharaohs and Foot Soldiers: One Hundred Ancient Egyptian Jobs by Kristin Butcher

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Pharaohs and Foot Soldiers: One Hundred Ancient Egyptian Jobs You Might Have Desired or Dreaded has been in my to-read stacks for some time now. However, I’ve had the hardest time finishing up the last few chapters necessary to wrap it up with. Each time I cracked the pages and began to read Kristin Butcher’s tongue-in-cheek job descriptions from ancient Egypt and soak in the comical, cartoon-like illustrations by Martha Newbigging, I felt a persistent tug on its pages. Soon the book would be slipped out from between my fingers and into the eager hands of a waiting child.

My three and six-year-old were each as likely as the other to abscond with this colourful title into a hidden nook or cranny of the living room. I found them curled up in the windowsill, sprawled out belly-down on the living room carpet, and curled in bed leafing through its pages. I finally succeeded in my mission by retreating to the bedroom during my toddler’s naptime and reading in the silent secrecy to be found there.

Ancient Egypt is without a doubt, one of the most fascinating historical time periods for children – the mummies, the pyramids, it’s all so mysterious. Author Kristin Butcher ensures that the quirky, and downright odd facts about living in ancient Egypt are expressed to children in ways that make an exploration of its culture unforgettable.

Covering 100 Egyptian ‘jobs’ in fifteen categories, children are invited to imagine themselves in each of the positions depicted. “It is your job to cut the huge stone blocks that will be used for monuments, statues, temples, and tombs.” Is the opening line of a job description for the position of quarryman. Each job category, such as “Nile Jobs,” “Assisting Pharaoh Jobs,” and “Noble Jobs” provide background information about the culture of Egypt and the importance and role of the category’s importance in Egyptian life. At times quite a depth of historical detail is included here.

Each individual job description is approximately two to three paragraphs in length and is accompanied by Newbigging’s trademark watercolour and ink illustrations that fill the pages of the other titles in Annick Press’ ‘historical jobs’ series of books.

Sidebars backed by a watermarked pyramid also accompany some job descriptions and provide additional archaeological information, historical detail, or relevance to modern society. A pictorial timeline, introductions to topics ranging from Egyptian government to belief in the afterlife, a fabulous list of additional recommended reading (think historical fiction chapter books), and an index round out the value-added educational components.

Whether read front-to-back, opened randomly, or browsed through while reading high-interest Egyptian job openings, children are sure to pick up a wealth of tidbits and Egyptian trivia while developing a passing familiarity with the lives of the ancient Egyptian people. Butcher is sure to include all manner of fascinating, personal details – which jobs will make you sweaty, which will make your back hurt, which will require you to marry your brother, and so on. My six-year-old has broken into unprompted narrations of certain enthralling jobs to her father such as our family favourite, “Sandal Bearer,” in which the lucky holder of this job gets to kiss Pharaoh’s big toe each time he helps him on with his shoes. A highly esteemed position in Egyptian society apparently. And of course, all of the fascinating details about removing the brain through the nose are included in the “Embalmer” job description in the “Temple Jobs” category.

For a picture book about Egypt, everyone is fairly well-covered, the men are all decked out in short linen skirts, the ladies wear long linen dresses for the most part. There is one gentleman – a reed cutter – who’s caught in full rearview nudity, a birthing mother is screened by her supportive attendants, and the dancing girls sport the equivalent of underwear with hair and hands that serve to conceal the upper torso. I’m thankful for Newbigging’s restraint in this area.

Some additional explanations may be required from parents as to the ‘godhood’ of Pharaoh. Butcher explains in her introductory background information that “Pharaoh was though to be the only living god left,” but then goes on to refer to him as a god throughout the text. While always subtly tongue-in-cheek with these mentions, younger children will no doubt miss the irony, leaving a need for some additional parental input on the topic.

The blithe disregard of my children for the official recommended age range of nine to twelve-years-old proves the book to work well across a broad range of ages when read aloud to a younger audience. Now that I’ve finally finished it, I can relinquish Pharaohs and Foot Soldiers to my daughters once again – I’m sure they’ve been missing it.

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