the wonder and blessings of a meaningful life enhanced by literacy

by Florence Parry Heide & Judith Heide Gilliland, illustrated by Ted Lewin - Penguin Books, 2002
ages 4 to 8 years / diversity, s.o.s.e.

Ahmed has a secret – and it’s a good one. One he can hardly wait to share with his family. But there is work to do. 

We follow Ahmed around while he sells butagaz (butane gas cylinders) and he introduces us to the wonders of his city – the sounds, the colours, the bustle, the sand! 

There's pride in Ahmed’s written voice as he tells us about the important role he plays in the life of the city and in the lives of the people he serves. There's pride in history, pride in work, pride in family and pride in the life he lives. 

Ahmed lives in Cairo and his city is rich in history and culture. The illustrations are detailed and moody – they deepen the connection between the reader and the story.

For example, the market scene where Ahmed tells us about the sounds he hears as he goes about his day is bustling with movement and feels like a freeze-frame snapshot. 

To one side stand two women talking – one holding her back just so, the other with a baby on her hip.

Neither play a part in Ahmed’s story, except that they make up the city he loves. But by including figures such as these throughout the book, we are transported into Ahmed’s life and we see a piece of ourselves in his very different world (most every mother has held her back just so or talked to a neighbour with a baby on her hip!).

And there is the secret which Ahmed can’t stop thinking about. The secret that changes the way he sees the city and his life. He says the loudest sound of all is ‘the silent sound of my secret’.  

Finally, day's end arrives and Ahmed gathers with his family – his father and two women, perhaps his mother and a grandmother or perhaps two wives. 

(Ahmed is clearly Muslim though he never says so.)

They sit in the dark and wait for Ahmed to reveal his secret – he can write his name!

Ahmed says that he now thinks of his name lasting longer than the sound of it – maybe even a thousand years.

So there it is: the immortality available to all who can write and leave a legacy.

This is an ever so slightly suspenseful book to read aloud – and then so very peaceful in its resolution. The quietness of the end of the book allows time to reflect on its themes:

the importance of literacy

the blessing of achievement

the delight of family

the strength that flows from hard and honest work

the happiness that comes with a fulfilled life

the feelings of kinship that we share regardless of religious or cultural heritage

and the comfort of a world that keeps turning and keeps moving even when a young boy has a special secret.

The Day of Ahmed's Secret would make a very lovely gift for a child who also has a secret! I can hardly count the number of times I've given it myself.