Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Egypt Game

I have no idea if anyone else read The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder as a kid, but I loved this book. I'm going to say right off of the bat--I still love this book. I think this is my fourth or fifth time reading it, the last time was probably around twelve years ago. This time around, I was so engrossed in The Egypt Game that I stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish it like it was Mockingjay or Gone Girl or something. And mind you, I already knew exactly what happens. It's a great book.

I say I don't know if anyone else read this book because we weren't assigned it in school, and I don't remember talking about it with anyone else. And because I considered The Egypt Game sacred, it was on the "Do Not Lend" list in my personal library, so I didn't let my friends in on the secret of how good it was. But I assume that kids other than me read it because it was a Newbery Honor book and that means it had to have populated most elementary school bookshelves. How did I come upon The Egypt Game?  It was a successful roll-of-the-dice choice made after carefully perusing an inky mailer.

The Egypt Game begins when 11-year-old April moves to a unviersity town in California (I think it's Berkeley) with her grandmother. April is going through a tough time--she was just involuntraily excommunicated from her home in L.A. where her mother is some kind of B-list singer/wanna be actress/terrible parent. April does not care much for her grandmother, mostly because she is upset about her mom ditching her, and to help deal with everything, she acts out by dressing like an insane person--by wearing her hair in an attempted glamorous updo, fluttery fake eyelashes, and a fur stole. She also decides to only talk about the fabulous parties she attended in Hollywood--as an 11-year-old.

April's new home is a dingy Spanish-style apartment complex called the Casa Rosada. Despite her appearance, April is somehow befriended by Melanie, another 11-year-old resident of Casa Rosada. Melanie is a kind, more serious girl who is able to connect with April after getting over the shock of her ridiculous outfits and outlandish stories, because they both realize they love to read and play imagination games. April has a wild imagination, and when she accidentally comes upon Melanie's collection of magazine cut-outs of people who represent the families she invents stories about in her head, April recognizes Melanie as a kindred spirit. Melanie is always accompanied by her tagalong brother of few words, Marshall, who is four years old, and who is similarly always escorted by his giant stuffed octopus named Security.

So Melanie and April have hit it off, and they come to a fenced in storage yard behind a local antique store which is owned by the neighborhood creepy, grumpy old man known as The Professor. In the storage yard, the girls find a cracked bust of Nefertiti, the Egyptian goddess, and a lightbulb goes off for April--and thus begins one of the most elaborate games ever played.  April is a high drama kind of girl so she loves anything about high drama Egypt and she decides that they should turn this storage yard into Egypt. The girls transform a lean-to shed in the yard into a sacred temple, with the help of the bust, a bird bath and other handmade or found relics. These girls are committed to this game--they do tons of research at the library, and meticulously log the rituals they come up with. They speak in tongues, repeatedly kneel with flair for the gods, flail their arms in honorific dances, and learn hieroglyphics.  Sometimes they are high priestesses who capture and kidnap the young pharoah Marshamosis (Marshall), sometimes they are high priestesses who rescue him--or both.  The best part about the Egypt Game is that it is a complete secret to everyone outside of the storage yard. Or so they think. Only Marshall notices that there is someone watching them from a window a lot of the time.  But Marshall is the silent type, so he keeps it to himself.

The Egypt Game eventually grows to include nine-year-old Elizabeth, another new resident of Casa Rosada. She is a Chinese girl who looks like Nefertiti from the side, an attribute that earns her both entrance into the game and the name Neferbeth. In an unlikely turn of events, the game also grows to include two of April and Melanie's icky male classmates from school, Toby Alvillar and Ken Kamata, who come upon Egypt while trying to prank the girls, and the girls barter their inclusion in the game for their silence. Toby is the cool class clown, and he is really into the Egypt Game from the start, while Ken is more of a reluctant member. He participates in the rituals but when they get a little too legit for him (chanting, flailing, dancing), his cheeks burn in embarrassment and he can only rub his head and say, "Sheesh." I love Ken Kamata.

So the Egypt Game is amazing and I could have read a book just about this sustained imagination game and all of its details and these great kids. But then there are two significant turn of events in the book. The first one is crazy--there is a murder in the community. Of a child. And it's the second murder of a child in the community in a year. Which means the killer lives amongst them. And he hasn't been caught. Unexpected and crazy, right?  As a kid, this was an absolutely thrilling, grisly twist.  At first, the Egypt Game is halted because all the parents of the neighborhood rightfully forbid their kids to be outside while the killer is still on the loose.  But as time goes by, the kids gradually are allowed to play outside again and Egypt is revisited.  At this point, some of the more elaborate rituals take place--the Egyptians have a week-long Ceremony of the Dead for Elizabeth's pet parakeet Pete, which includes Pete's mummification. The kids also partake in an Oracle ceremony where they ask the oracle (a stuffed owl) questions.  The kids are all spooked when the questions are actually answered by hand.  At first, the "Oracle" turns out to be Toby who is just trying to amp up the authenticity of the game, but then Security the octopus gets lost and when Marshall's question of where is he is answered by the Oracle--and it wasn't Toby--the kids get really spooked and decide to cool it a little bit with the Egypt Game, which has now turned eerie.

After this, one night, April is babysitting Marshall and she realizes she left her math book in Egypt. She goes back to Egypt with Marshall, and while there, a pair of strong, violent arms pull April from the fence entrance of Egypt. Marshall sees what happens and is shocked but frozen in fear and cannot shout for help.  At this point, a window is broken, and an unfamiliar voice calls out for help. The arms drop April and the man--the murderer--runs away. April narrowly escapes being the next murder victim. Later, Marshall IDs the man as the stockboy from the local general store frequented by the kids and the murders are solved. The "help" shouter turns out to be the previous #1 suspect--the not-so-creepy-anymore Professor.  Who also turns out to be the one who had been watching the kids in Egypt, and the one who had answered as the Oracle when Security was missing. The Professor turns out to be quite lovely--and explains that he became so grumpy after his wife died tragically, but these kids helped to turn his life around. His shop picks up business since he is now the neighborhood hero. Lovely! April ends up feeling close to her grandmother and realizing she belongs in this town, and not in LA with her hack of a mom. Also lovely! The Professor ends up locking up the storage yard, but he gives each member of the Egypt Game a key.  April and Melanie are thrilled they can keep using the yard, but disappointed that the Egypt Game seems to have lost its luster now that the secret is out and all that has happened.  The book ends with April asking Melanie, "What do you know about gypsies?"

How good is that plot??  On top of being really interesting and educational, there is this thriller aspect to the book as well as an eerie mystery.  Also, all of these kids come from different ethnic backgrounds. Melanie and Marshall are black, Elizabeth is Chinese, Ken is Japanese and Toby is probably Latin--and it was no big deal. Considering this book was written in 1967, during the height of the civil rights moment, this is significant and makes a great tacit lesson. 

I loved this book so much as a kid because I felt like Melanie and April were my kindred spirits.  As a child, I too was really into elaborate imagination games. For example, there was The Best Game I Ever Played. I started off with the goal of creating a Lego town using every single block of my brothers' extensive Lego collection. I built 15 Lego houses in our basement playroom and assigned each Lego man, woman and child to a family and to a house--even the pirate Lego men (they had recently moved from the Middle East). I was so satisfied, I couldn't stop there, so I pulled out our Playmobil people created a town using various receptacles as houses. The town was on the stairs because these were mountain people. And nearby, I created a town of  Fisher Price Little People, whom already had prefabricated homes, as well as a zoo and and auto shop that I repurposed as homes.  Every family had a back story and I played as long and as hard as I could because I knew that this glorious set up would only last a short time, considering I lived with four wrecking balls for siblings.  My brothers and sister were so awed by what I had created that the unheard of occurred -- they let it stand for three days.  I also remember being very satisfied with an imagination game where I was the only child crew member on Christopher Columbus' ship, the Santa Maria, on the way to discover America.  Yea--friends came later in life. As a kid, my respect for the Egypt Game was immense and I really, really connected with this story and these girls.

In prepping to write this post, I looked up Zilpha Keatley Snyder (Zilpha is an amazing name by the way--it sounds like the name of a gypsy pirate wench or a glam forest witch--both awesome).  I was shocked to learn that she was till alive and that she has this cheeky website that says she has written 46 books and is working on her 47th!  And most delightfully, I saw that in 1997--thirty years after writing The Egypt Game--she wrote a sequel called The Gypsy Game which you best believe I immediately purchased off of Amazon Prime! I couldn't be more excited if they told me Sex and the City was going to have a tween spin off prequel series. . . oh, wait, that's true too?  Aaaah, 2013 rules!!!


  1. Just read the read the Egypt Game and it was every bit as magical as described!

  2. I so love this blog of yours. I'm a little bit older than you but also read most of these books in elementary school. In my opinion the books from our childhood are so much better than what kids have access to now. And I totally remember those Scholastic Book Order forms. I used to spend hours looking over them.

    I'm currently teaching a critical thinking enrichment class to 3rd graders and am bringing these books back! We are currently reading Ramona Quimby Age 8 and the kids love Ramona! I will be sure to check out your blog to find books that I missed back then. Thank you for this blog. I love it!

  3. I think I read this one because it was one of our reading options at school. I remember being dismayed (I still am, I suppose) that some folks in my state wanted the book banned for its non-Christian religious content. I was always very glad the folks in my school district were a little more understanding.