Book Review: Bread for the Pharaoh by Jerome Asher

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I don’t read much middle grade fiction anymore. I read Gregor The Overlander by Susan Collins last year, and Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat, Middle grade fiction is a hard read for an adult. Young Adult Fiction these days is basically a book written for adults, but with teenage protagonists. I’m probably over-simplifying that a bit, but not a lot.

Middle grade fiction is a different beast altogether. The reading skills of the reader are generally lower. Their attentions spans (especially boys) are much shorter. The plot has to be more simple, and the characters fewer and easy to remember. I loved middle grade fictions when I was growing up, but once I graduated from that level of reading to more adult books, it was really hard to go back, because most middle grade books seemed so shallow when it came to emotions and plot.

Bread for the Pharaoh by Jerome Asher (aka Jason Black) is a middle grade novel set in on the Giza Plateau in Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Kafre, sometime around 2550 BC. San is the son of Nasu, a baker who supplies bread for one of the Pharaoh’s Temples, and for the workers who are carving the great statue of the Sphinx. On a trip to the temple with his daily supply of bread, San meets Aja, the daughter of the High Priest. San and Aja strike up a friendship that is banned by her father because San and Aja are from different classes. Aja is a noble. San is just a peasant. But San and Aja continue to sneak around to enjoy each other’s company, and in doing so, stumble into a plot that not only endangers them, but their families as well.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I know Jason Black pretty well. We’re actually in a writing critique group together, and I was a little nervous about reading this book because I do these reviews. What if I didn’t like it? It was written before I ever knew Jason, and long before we created our critique group, so I had no idea what the writing would be like.

Fortunately, the book is quite good. It does start a little bit slow for middle grade fiction, showing all the work San’s father Nasu must do to make the bread every day. San, the main character, doesn’t appear until page 3, which threw me for a bit, because the point of view had to shift from Nasu to San. But once past that point, the book picked up speed. San and Aja are constantly climbing on things to get away from pursuit or to sneak out to their forbidden meetings. They’re just kids, and that is clear, but the story puts them into the position of needing to act – of having no choice to turn it over to the authorities because the authorities either cannot be  trusted or would not believe them. When I was a kid, and I came up with my fantasies of being a hero and saving the day, these were always key components. Kids want to believe that kids have the power to save the day when the adults are not there or won’t listen. Come to think of it, that’s the same theme JK Rowling used so well to put Harry Potter in danger so frequently.

Through the last half of the book, I had a hard time putting it down and would definitely recommend it to any family / friends with boys or girls in the 8-12 year old range. My 4 year old daughter actually sat next to me while I was reading it, and I read some of it to her, and she didn’t want me to stop. But my voice gave out, so she’ll have to read it to herself when she gets a little older.

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