The summer holidays are almost upon us and while it’s wonderful to cast aside the daily routine of the school term times, many parents will be thinking about ways to get the kids out and about, engaging with each other and their surroundings rather than staring at screens. For Cambridge parent Sorrel May, thoughts like these inspired “Riddle of the White Sphinx”, a magical book aimed at 8 – 12 year olds.
Sorrel’s idea started to take shape when she mentioned it to Mark Wells, a friend who had started writing on retirement from his business career. An alumnus of St John’s College and a Cambridge resident, inspiration struck Mark as he wandered round the Fitzwilliam Museum listening to a commentary through headphones. What if certain museum artefacts could only speak to children? He went home, wrote until 3am and sent his words through to Sorrel, whose children loved it. So Mark kept writing, illustrator Jennifer Bell created rich, evocative images that children can pore over and Fiona Boyd of The Cardozo Kindersley Workshop designed the fantasy alphabet that’s used in the coded message which appears in each illustration.
To solve the riddle, children need to find seven of the “Hidden”, each of which is in a different Cambridge museum, to free these “Hidden” from the sinister “Keeper of Secrets”. There’s a Museum Passport in each book … get that stamped in every Museum because the word in each stamp makes a sentence which gives a big clue as to where the ultimate Keeper’s Secret is hidden in the city. Plus there’s that code to crack and kids can also join the AHA! Club through the website to get advice and extra clues.
Mark has worked with primary schools throughout the writing process. Careful thought has gone into the book’s design; to help dyslexic readers, the story is printed in Baskerville font on off white paper and the print is not justified on the right hand margin, to avoid any distortion of letters. Mark has created a literacy pack with lesson plans on reading, illustration and code breaking as well as a teacher guided tour of Cambridge museums. Schools have been signing up for an author visit and reading plus Q & A sessions.
Riddle of the White Sphinx launches on Saturday 20 July at Heffers Bookshop. This family event, which starts at 2pm, will include a treasure hunt round the shop, a reading from Mark, personalised badge making, a drawing workshop and a Q & A session. Other linked events through the summer include free weekly craft activities at Heffers with special guest appearances from four museums and their collections, a code cracking workshop at the Fitzwilliam Museum and an illustration masterclass from Jennifer Bell.
You can buy the book in Cambridge bookshops and at the museums or order it through the website. University of Cambridge museums are all free entry whilst the Museum of Cambridge is giving free entry to children who arrive with the book. I reckon this is a great way to keep children absorbed for hours, working together in an analogue rather than a digital pursuit that gets them out and about in a quest to find the Keeper’s Secret, hidden somewhere in this city. For more information, details of events and for more of Mark’s story, take a look at these websites.