Book Review: The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

It’s Halloween, and my daughter is obsessed with ancient Egypt, so when I saw this book for about a dollar at a used book store, I didn’t think twice, even though I had never heard of this Newbery Honor book.

The novel employs largely omniscient narration, jumping from perspective to perspective as needed, following primarily a girl named April who has moved to California to be with her grandmother, since her mother is too busy with her acting career and boyfriend to pay her much mind. She befriends a diverse cast of characters, including Melanie and her younger brother Marshall, and together they begin an “Egypt Game” in a seemingly abandoned lot nearby. They pretend to be priestesses, and they decorate the yard with shrines and statues and other things and make up rituals and hieroglyphics. The game brings together a motley crew that supports each other through some darker times: there has been a murder in the neighborhood, and parents fear the young girl is not the last victim. Despite this danger, the kids continue their Egypt game.

The plot is interesting, and I love the fact that the children are able to find a place completely away from their parents. I also love that the “game” is inspired entirely by their love of books: every idea they get for the game comes from something they read about ancient Egypt. (Because they are 11 years old, mostly, they are not entirely accurate, of course.) I do wonder if the book would have been accepted for publication today. It could be seen as culturally insensitive—the kids are looking at Egyptian culture as a magical, mystical thing, without acknowledging that Egypt is still a real place and a real culture. It’s the same concern I see today when kids want to dress up for Halloween as an Eskimo or a Native American or a Gypsy.

And there was something missing about the bookperhaps depth of character, limited by the omniscient perspective—that seems to be holding it back. The novel is from the 1960s, and although the dialogue feels genuine, it definitely feels dated. Still, from a writer’s perspective, I enjoyed the way the author chose a slightly omniscient perspective, giving us just enough hints at what characters were thinking without being boring about it—and while still keeping the mystery revealed after the climax.

Still, it’s an enjoyable read, and despite the concerns about it being dated, I do wonder if it is an important “artifact” for kids—so that they can see what life was like before the ages of cell phones, technology everywhere, helicopter parents, and lack of outdoor or unsupervised time. That sense of wonder (and danger) is what helps us grow as people, and if kids are missing that element in their lives today, perhaps they can find it in books.

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