Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book Review: The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1967)

When April Hall moves in with her grandmother while her mother remains in Hollywood, the first kids she meets are Melanie Ross and her brother, Marshall. April and Melanie appear to be quite different from each other, but they soon bond over a mutual fascination with Egyptian history. Each afternoon, the two girls and Marshall gather in the yard behind the A-Z Antiques and Curio Shop to play the Egypt Game. At first, the game consists of simple rituals and ceremonies which the girls invent and perform in costume. Later, as more members join their group, their activities expand to include writing in hieroglyphics and attempting to gain information from an oracle. When strange things begin to happen to members of their group, however, April and Melanie wonder how much of the Egypt Game is imagined and how much is real.

The Egypt Game was first published in 1967, and it was awarded a Newbery Honor in 1968. Like Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg and Afternoon of the Elves by Janet Taylor Lisle, it explores the power of imagination and the exciting adventures kids can have in their own backyards when left to their own devices. As I read this book, I kept thinking that it represents everything I like to see in a middle grade novel. These days, it seems like middle grade is treated as a stepping stone to YA, rather than as a reading level unto itself. In many situations, middle grade has started to refer to middle school, and the focus has shifted from tales of family, friendship and imagination to sordid stories about bullies, ostracization, dating, and family dysfunction. Reading The Egypt Game reminded me that there are many other topics of interest to kids in the 8-12 age range, and that even fifth and sixth graders still like to imagine and pretend. I’d like to see more contemporary middle grade novels living up to the standard set by this book.

There are lots of lovely details in this story that bring it and its characters fully to life. Marshall is never seen without his stuffed octopus named Security. April tries to impress people and simultaneously keep them at bay by wearing fake eyelashes, which she only sheds after she becomes comfortable with her new friends. Melanie enjoys cutting photos of people out of magazines and using them to tell stories which she hides in the pages of a special book on her shelf. Each character has a role in the larger group of Egyptians, but each is also an individual whose personality and quirks contribute to the overall story.

For a book going on 50 years old, The Egypt Game holds up really well. No matter how many years pass, children will always enjoy making up their own games and imagining themselves in various roles, and this book really celebrates these unique childhood experiences in a way that resonates with multiple generations. Though there is a sequel, The Gypsy Game, and I plan to read it, I would argue that The Egypt Game is pretty much perfect on its own, and I think it will be a tough act to follow, even for its own author.

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