“Baghdad, in those times, was a great city, the prince of all cities.”

[From the vaults at stabenow.com, Aug 9, 2010 ]

The House of Wisdom by Florence Parry Heide & Judith Heide Gilliland is a children’s picture book with more narrative than most, but what truly distinguishes it are the phenomenal illustrations by Mary GrandPre.

Ishaq is a boy in 9th century Baghdad.


Baghdad, in those times, was a great city, the prince of all cities. Even in the farthest reaches of the world people knew of Baghdad. Like a silent voice calling, like an invisible thread pulling, it gathered to itself all that the world had to offer.


Ishaq’s father, Hunayn, is a translator for the House of Wisdom, an immense library established by the caliph of Baghdad. Ishaq grows up in the House of Wisdom, and then one day…

…the Caliph chose Ishaq to lead an expedition to search for books. Now he could explore! At last he would see the world…

Ishaq rode by camel and horse through desert and plain, along well-travelled roads and desolate trails. He sailed from river to sea and from port to port.

He listened to the trumpeting of elephants beside the Ganges and talked with learned scholars in fragrant gardens in Persia. He hunted the crocodile along the Nile and wrapped himself against fierce sandstorms in the Sahara.

To Cordova and Samarkand, to India and China he travelled, visiting distant cities and hidden cloisters. And everywhere he went he met holy men and merchants, adventurers and explorers…

Everything he saw and heard and felt was new and strange, but for the rising of the sun each day and the canopy of stars at night.


Ishaq returns to Baghdag bearing a trove of literary treasure for caliph and father, and succeeds to his father’s place in the House of Wisdom.

Ishaq and Hunayn were real people and the House of Wisdom a real place. The book is a wonderful story in itself but the illustrations are enchanting, beautifully drawn and filled with color and light. Each one is detailed with the minutia of 9th century life in the House of Wisdom and on the road with Ishaq, two scholars studying in an alcove, Persian rugs hanging in the marketplace, a Greek key design, a lookout in a crow’s nest, a distant minaret. Every time I look at this book I see something I haven’t seen before. I can’t imagine any adult ever tiring of reading and rereading this book aloud to their child.

I am extremely sorry to whet your appetite like this and then tell you that the book is out of print. This one of those times when I wonder what publishers are thinking. Fortunately, used copies are available on Amazon.

Book Review Monday Chatter

Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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