The Roses In My Carpets

This book touched me deeply. A young Afghani’s recurring nightmare pulls us into this story – “It’s always the same. The jets scream overhead.” He dreams of running to escape the bombs together with his mother and sister, Maha. In his dreams, they weigh him down and always, he wakes up to his bare home in a refugee camp.

In quiet and almost grim tones, he tells us about his days. He lives with his mother and sister and they manage to eke out a living with the help of a sponsor. He prays and goes to school, but his most cherished activity is when he learns how to weave carpets. It is his lifeline – he hopes this skill will help provide for his family. It also allows him to visualise and carve out his dreams – a world of hope and beauty. The nameless protagonist uses red threads to honour the martyrs, blue for the sky, free of bombing jets, black for the night that hides them from the enemy and white for the shroud of his father. He uses no browns for he longs to escape the dirty brown huts in the camp.

Then one day, he is confronted with the possibility losing yet another member of his family… Will this make him or break him? Has his well of hope run dry?

I personally love this book – Ronald Himmler’s illustrations are always beautiful and in this case, he has sensitively captured the grief and quiet dignity of the family. [You might recognize his work in Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, Rudy’s Pond, Fly Away Home and The Well.] The contrast between the muddy walls and vibrant carpets bring home the themes of strife and hope.

I think it was brave of Rukhsana Khan to write a story about the very painful ramifications of war. Death, displacement, poverty and trauma don’t make for happy reading, but The Roses in My Carpet is masterfully told. Some may say that this book is too distressing for children, but I feel it is important that my children, who have been blessed with safety and stability, understand the agony that other children from war-torn countries have endured. Their feelings and well-being matter just as much.

The story ends on a hopeful note – the boy dreams again, but this time, his family finds a space away from the bombs, where the earth is strewn with red roses and where the sky is blue and free from the menacing jets.

The Day of Ahmed’s Secret

Back in 2009, my friend Suzanne, who teaches English (among other things!) met with me and our conversation invariably meandered to books. She just about gushed over The Day of Ahmed’s Secret written by the late Florence Parry Heide and her daughter, Judith Heide Gilliland. Of course, I needed very little encouragement to hunt the book down!

Before I talk about this book, I MUST talk about the illustrator, who is one of my favourites – Ted Lewin. I can’t draw or paint for toffee, but I have always longed for the ability because of amazingly talented artists like him. Ted Lewin has illustrated numerous books that my kids and I enjoy. He has an inimitable style that gives the stories warmth and life. His watercolours are remarkably detailed and in this book, he and the authors expertly capture the sights, smells and sounds of the markets and busy streets of Cairo.

Every single time I read a book he has illustrated, I feel as if I were looking at a photograph! I’ve discovered the secret to his realistic and vibrant pictures – he uses his friends and neighbours and their kids as subjects and directs them to ‘act’ out the story while he photographs them in the studio!

The Day of Ahmed’s Secret is about young Ahmed who rides through the streets of Cairo to deliver cylinders of butane gas (it is for cooking) to his father’s customers. He has a secret to tell his family, but it must keep till the evening for he has his job to do first. Ahmed seems rather young for such hard work (he looks no more than 10 or 11), but he does it patiently (there is not a hint of complaint from him) and quite obviously, out of a sense of love and duty for his family. We sense how mature he is in his quiet introspective nature and in how he understands why he has to grow up quickly to help ease his father’s burden.

As Ahmed weaves in and out of the city, we meet various characters – the food vendor who always has a word for him, the rose water man, the customers and all the folks who make up the hustle and bustle of Cairo that he is a part of. He reflects on how old the city is and talks of the desert in almost sentimental terms. Through it all, we are constantly reminded of the secret he is carrying.

I could talk about all kinds of learning points like Egypt, deserts, pyramids and what not, but I prefer to just bask in the gorgeousness of this book 🙂

When Ahmed finally returns to the warmth and comfort of home, he finally divulges his surprise. It is worth the wait – I was so proud of him and felt like thumping his back!

A keeper!


Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe and was educated there and in Scotland. A Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, he is a best-selling author of adults’ books. He is a hugely prolific writer, probably best known for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency featuring the delightful Precious Ramotswe – Botswana’s leading, and only, female private detective. He has other very popular series like The Sunday Philosophy Club and 44 Scotland Street.

Mr McCall Smith is also equally adept with younger audiences. A favourite in our household is the Akimbo series. Back in 2006, a kindred spirit told me about these books and so Marz and I went on a hunt. We were rewarded with a box set of the first three books that was in perfect condition! [The set features Akimbo and the ElephantsAkimbo and the Lions and Akimbo and the Crocodile Man. Two more books have been released since – Akimbo and the Baboons and Akimbo and the Snakes.]

Akimbo is a young, adventurous African boy who lives in a large game reserve where his father is a head ranger. He is passionate about animal conservation and goes through great lengths to protect them.

In Akimbo and the Elephants, Akimbo helps to bring down an elephant poaching ring. In Akimbo and the Lions, he helps to raise a lion cub and becomes attached to it. However he knows that Simba belongs in the wild. It is a heartbreaking moment when he releases Simba. (Oh how Marz cried!)

In Akimbo and the Crocodile Man, our resourceful friend is given the chance to accompany John the Crocodile man who is doing research on a batch of crocodiles. During the trip, John is attacked by an angry croc. It is a race against time as Akimbo braves dangerous waters to get help for his friend. Marz loved the bit where Akimbo hotwires a truck, drives it and barely misses crashing into a tree!

Akimbo is excited that he is finally able to visit his Uncle Peter’s snake park in Akimbo and the Snakes. A local village reports the sighting of a black mamba – the rarest and most deadly snake of all. Akimbo and Uncle Peter hope to catch it for the snake park, but Akimbo unexpectedly is trapped face to face with this deadly reptile!

Finally, Akimbo and his cousin, Kosi, join a visiting scientist, Jen, who is observing a pack of baboons in Akimbo and the Baboons. There is always danger in the wild and this time, a pack of leopards threaten the pack and Jen. Later, Akimbo notices that one of the young baboons is injured and resolves to help it.

I love his series just as much as Marz did. Young Akimbo is a such a likeable role model – he is plucky, cheerful and respectful … and he has perseverance in spades! Alexander McCall Smith manages to convey the importance of animal protection and ecological protection while still keeping the narrative accessible and upbeat. His descriptions are simple and yet incredibly detailed and will transport you to the beautiful African continent. Peter Bailey’s black and white illustrations are gorgeous – I don’t think we see enough of this sort of art.

We finished each book in one sitting. I’d recommend this for both boys and girls who are getting into chapter books and as read-alouds for younger ones. I think this book is a wonderful gateway to deeper studies of this fascinating continent.

A must-have for your home library.