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?

All For One And One For All!

Among other things, Alex and I have been slowly reading as many books as we can find from 1,001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. About a year ago, I picked up a copy of Alice in Wonderland at our local library, not noticing until we got home that it was an abridged version. I almost set it aside in favor of finding a complete copy of the book. I am I ever glad I didn’t!

The abridged version was part of the old Great Illustrated Classics series. This series takes many of the old classics and writes them in a way that makes sense to children (perfect for a Third Grader)—not only are there illustrations on every other page, but the print is large, and the language is updated and simple to understand.

Alex so enjoyed the first few we read that he declared that we had to read every classic in the series. And that no one but Mom could read the classics with him!

I have to admit, a part of me felt that if he was going to read the classics, he should only read the “real” versions. But he really does love these books, and they are great introductions to the timeless stories that make these “the classics.” There’s nothing worse than being turned off from a book because you have tried to read the original unabridged version before you are ready. And I am confident that for those that he particularly enjoys, he will go back to the original texts when he is ready.

We just started the abridged version of The Three Musketeers.

Alex has been drawn into the story almost from the first page. Even though Alexandre Dumas wrote the book nearly 175 years ago, he found the perfect pacing for today’s nine-year-old boy. Stories of duels, a kidnapping, mystery, and intrigue leave Alex begging for more every night. He carries the book around the house hoping to catch me with a few moments to spare. (Of course, he COULD read it on his own—he chooses not to because he wants us to find out what happens together!)

The story also gives us a chance to talk about historical aspects of the book. We talk about the Bastille. We talk about dueling. We talk about who the Cardinal is and why he has his own guards. One thing I’ve learned as Alex has read books over the past few years is that when he learns things by reading stories, he remembers them very well. So we now have a basic understanding of French history in the early 1600s. What a fantastic perk from an already great book!

If you are interested in exploring the classics with your child, or if your child has asked to read one of the great stories of the past, I highly recommend starting in the Great Illustrated Classics. They are a great way to ease into this genre.

Have you read any great books lately?