You could say Kepi has her head in the clouds. It's not that she doesn't want to help her family make a living with their farm, it's that she gets distracted when she sees a beetle. Or when she gets a good idea. Or when she comes across a crocodile who has just finished lunch, and a baby baboon who has just been orphaned. When Kepi adopts the baboon and names him Babu, that's when things begin to change. Out picking figs for her father, Kepi and Babu inadvertently end up kidnapped and stuffed into a basket on a ship bound for Ineb Hedj, the capital city of ancient Egypt.
With no one but Babu for company, Kepi ends up forging a strange relationship with Menes, the man who kidnaps her. But he's not so interested in Kepi. Baboons are sacred, and Menes and his fellow boatmen will receive a hefty price when they sell Babu and Kepi as slaves to a temple in the capital. Kepi insists she'll have none of that, but she doesn't exactly want to escape. Ineb Hedj is where the pharaoh Khufu lives, and Kepi has a bone to pick with him. It is because of the pharaoh that her father was wounded while building a pyramid and now lives at home, poor and unable to work, except by baking bread.
It is on the boat, in the basket, that the stories Kepi's parents told her about the gods and goddesses come in handy. As she prays to each one, strange things begin to happen, and she is thrown from adventure to adventure, meeting new allies and enemies on each step. Every time Kepi finds Babu, she loses him again, and Menes changes from friendly to scary to fatherly, as he and Kepi must band together to regain what each of them has lost. Later, Kepi sets out alone and finds a boy her own age with a similar need to speak to the pharaoh. Finally, when she and her friends are faced with grave danger, she must make a choice that leads to sad but beautiful consequences.
Set against a stunning background of the Nile River, with rich details describing ancient Egyptian metallurgy, farming and weaving, LIGHTS ON THE NILE is an adventure for the adventure lover, a fairy tale for the fantasy reader, and a historical fiction for the serious reader. Kepi is somewhat reminiscent of both Huck Finn and Cinderella. It's wonderful to see a girl literally at the front of the boat, navigating her own way through a world that doesn't want to help her. This isn't just a book for kids --- adults will love it, too, and it would make a great classroom or family read. Donna Jo Napoli has once again recrafted a fairy tale so that it's something completely different, but still feels like home.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez