Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

When I finished the 1968 Newbery Honor book, The Egypt Game, I could for no stretch of the imagination see why it hadn't simply won straight out. Until I realized it was an honor book the year that my very very favorite, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, was the winner. Fair enough, Newbery, fair enough. Apparently 1968 was a good year for kids books, because The Egypt Game was a wonderful story about imagination, learning and the joy of play. I'm so sad I didn't read this book as a child. I know my older sister did, because I found her copy at our mom's house (and didn't steal it, it's still there Mikka, I promise). But I know I would have loved it then, for the very same reasons I love it now.
The Egypt Game starts from the perspective of April Hall, a little girl who's just moved to a new neighborhood so that she can live with her grandmother while her mother runs around Hollywood. Despite the fact that April finds the new town far too provincial for her tastes, she soon makes friends with the decidedly less precocious Melanie Ross, and by proxy, Melanie's very serious little brother, Marshall (who never goes anywhere without his safety octopus, aptly named Safety). The three begin playfully reenacting ancient Egyptian rituals, and are soon joined by two boys, Ken and Toby. With five players in the Egypt game, all bringing their own ideas and research to the table, the game becomes more serious, and when strange things start happening, the kids can't help but wonder if they are making it happen. Meanwhile, a child murderer is in the neighborhood, and everyone suspects the Professor, the strange old man whose backyard is the secret location for the Egypt game.
It's a silly thing to focus on, since there are so many wonderful things about this book, but I loved the characterization of Ken Kamata. Ken plays very reluctantly, and is always a little embarrassed and incredibly self-conscious. There's a fabulously funny illustration in the chapter entitled: Ceremony for the Dead, in which all the children are shown in the wild throws of a dramatic funeral. All except Ken, who (despite being in character by beating his chest) is looking straight out of the page at the reader, a slightly embarrassed look on his face, as though even doing this in front of the reader is just more humiliation than he can bear. Maybe I just like Ken, because when I was a kid, I was a bit like him. I wish I had been a kid like Marshall, but so it goes.
I don't think you can even throw a rock without finding a third or fourth grader who's curious about ancient Egypt. So throw a rock, hit a kid and then buy them a copy of this book. The parents will totally drop charges when they see how awesome the book is. Or you'll go to jail with a funny story about bad advice and good kids books.


  1. LUV this book so much I still reread it on occasion to decompress from work. Smart, terrifying, funny and presents a diverse group of kids without a lot of super sanctimonious preaching about difference. The sequel, The Gypsy Game, wasn't nearly as good.

  2. Wow, surprising to hear that Egypt Game and Mixed-Up Files came out the same year. If it had been up to me they'd have been co-winners, I can't choose which I like better.


  3. This is the best book review I've ever read.

    And yeah, this book rocks. I absolutely loved it when I was a kid and always secretly wanted to stage all the ceremonies myself, especially after grandma brought us back those sarcophagi-shaped pencil cases from the british museum. good to know my copy's still safe...