Tales from the Arabian Nights

Children of all ages will love Donna Jo Napoli’s Tales from the Arabian Nights: Stories of Adventure, Magic, Love, and Betrayal, published last year by National Geographic. The title truly says it all. It has everything necessary to keep any reader entertained.

Tales from the Arabian Nights

Tales from the Arabian Nights is a collection of stories excerpted from the classic One Thousand and One Nights. Since I have never read One Thousand and One Nights, I was just as enthralled as my kids were as we read this book.

The book opens with two tales that introduce us to Shah Rayar, Scheherazade, and Dinarzad, the three characters whose story is woven throughout the entire book.

In the first tale, Shah Rayar learned that his wife was unfaithful to him. As a result, he condemned his wife to death. Shah Rayar decided that all wives betray their husbands, but he believed he needed a wife. So Shah Rayar made “a terrible vow: From thence forward, Shah Rayar would marry daily, and the next morning he would have his bride slain.”

The second tale introduces the reader to the two daughters of the vizier: Scheherazade and Dinarzad. Scheherazade saw the suffering in the kingdom and the grief of all of the parents, and her heart broke. One day, she said to the vizier: “Father, I will marry Shah Rayar and I will save the people or die trying.” The vizier tried unsuccessfully to change Scheherazade’s mind.

And so, Scheherazade married Shah Rayar. Before she left home, she told Dinarzad that she would send for her that night, and that Dinarzad must find the right moment to ask her to tell a tale.

This is how One Thousand and One Nights began. . .

On the first night (Night 1), Scheherazade’s loyal sister Dinarzad (who was sleeping under the marital bed) woke at midnight and asked Scheherazade to tell one of her wonderful tales “to while away the time” until daybreak. The king decided to “indulge his bride in the last hours of her life,” and Scheherazade began “The Tale of the Merchant & the Jinni.” (The book uses the Arabic words jinni, jinniya, and jinn—before reading this, I was only familiar with the English spelling of genie.)

Cleverly, Scheherazade managed to time the climax of the tale right as dawn began to enter the bedroom window. She stopped telling the story. Dinarzad remarked that she had told a marvelous tale, and Scheherazade responded: “It’s nothing compared with what I shall tell tomorrow, if the king spares me one more night.” Shah Rayar wanted to know what happened to the characters in the tale, so he told Scheherazade: “Yes, you can continue another night.”

Each night, Scheherazade continued from the prior stopping point and timed the tale so that dawn was breaking just as the tale reached another exciting place. Sometimes she would quickly conclude one story and then begin an entirely new one in the same night, again ending in the middle of the story at dawn. In this way, she convinced Shah Rayar each morning to allow her to live one more day.

The stories in this collection include some that I was familiar with (in very broad strokes only, not most of the details). Tales from the Arabian Nights includes “Ali Baba & the Forty Thieves.” We eagerly read about Sinbad the Sailor and the stories of his seven voyages. And Aladdin makes an appearance and finds his magic lamp in this collection.

There are also tales that I had not heard of before reading this book. We loved the tale of “Qamar Al-Zaman.” We couldn’t wait to read the end of the story of “The Ebony Horse.” The troubles of “Maaruf the Cobbler” had us on the edge of our seats.

Ms. Napoli has created an excellent introduction into the world of Scheherazade and One Thousand and One Nights. I highly recommend it.

I began this post by saying that children “of all ages” would love the book. This is true; however, I will caution parents that there are some scary moments in the book (e.g., giant birds attacking and sinking a boat; giants eating people) and mature concepts (e.g., references to a “wife’s escapades with another man”; attempts by men or jinn to kill others). So it may not be appropriate for the youngest readers. Ms. Napoli lists it among her Middle Grade books on her website, and I agree with this characterization.

Ms. Napoli is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. She has also written Treasury of Egyptian Mythology, Treasury of Greek Mythology, Treasury of Norse Mythology, along with many other books ranging from picture books to young adult novels. Her website is www.donnajonapoli.com.

Christina Balit’s illustrations in Tales from the Arabian Nights are exquisite. They are rich in color and design. They include 70 paintings in watercolor, gouache, and gold ink. Even on the pages that don’t include a full illustration, there are designs in the corners and along the sides of the pages, keeping the vibrant colors ever-present. Ms. Balit has illustrated a number of children’s books using mixed media. Her website is www.christinabalit.com—I encourage everyone to go online and check out her other work. It is all just as phenomenal as what you find in Tales from the Arabian Nights.

Have you read any great books lately?

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