The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
originally published 1967
Dell, 6th printing, 1986
Genre: Children’s lit, mystery, suspense
Jacket copy: The first time Melanie Ross meets April Hall, she’s not sure they’ll have anything in common. But she soon discovers that they both love anything to do with ancient Egypt. When they stumble upon a deserted storage yard behind the A-Z Antiques and Curio Shop, Melanie and April decide it’s the perfect spot for the Egypt Game.
Before long there are six Egyptians instead of two. After school and on weekends they all meet to wear costumes, hold ceremonies, and work on their secret code.
Everyone thinks it’s just a game, until strange things begin happening tot he players. Has the Egypt Game gone too far?
Book report: When I’m ready for bed, I read a little. Sometimes, when I’m reading a massive tome (think The Game of Kings), I’ll pick up a lighter volume, usually YA, to read before bed so that I can properly relax without thinking too much. But there are certain books I shouldn’t read before bed, because then I don’t go to sleep. Such is the case with The Egypt Game, one of the many books I appropriated from elementary school teachers (sorry, Ms Kunishima!), which I picked up just before going to sleep, and them promptly read all the way through. It’s just that engaging. And good. Not to mention suspenseful. When things start happening in Egypt, it gives me chills.
Even though I’ve read it literally dozens of times since I was six, and sort of know exactly what happens, Snyder is just so dang good at creating tension and atmosphere that I’m gripped by it and cannot put it down. I haven’t read much else by her, but I can say definitively that The Egypt Game and Eyes in the Fishbowl are two of the finest examples of juvenile suspense fiction out there. And they were both penned back in the Sixties. Why was there such great kid fiction in the Sixties? Seriously: Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Outsiders (which I haven’t read, but I hear it rules), A Wrinkle in Time, The Pigman, etc etc etc, so on and so forth. Need I say more?
Well, maybe I will, just a little. When I was a kid, I was so envious of April and Melanie et alia. I had no one who would play imagination games with me like that–other than sometimes my little sister in the summers when I’d visit Oregon. I remember one abortive attempt to have my own Egypt Game, but with Ancient Greece (I was big on Greek mythology when I was a kid), but I just never could sustain belief by myself.
Whenever people complain that Newberry winners suck (and I have heard this complaint many times, by fools and the insane), I cannot help but be astonished. With books of this caliber (The Egypt Game was a Newberry Honor book, though not the winner that year) on the list, how is it even possible for people to make that assertion? Madness! And how the hell was this not in Shelf Discovery?
I like that the children are autonomous, and that they’re not patronized in the slightest. And of course, that they are wildly imaginative and interested in nerdy historical stuffs (like me!). And I especially love that their childhoods–like mine did–involves being left to their own devisings; I spent years as a semi-latchkey kid, and my friends and I roamed wherever we liked to play, only coming home at dusk. And until restriction are placed because of a terrible event, so do these kids. The book does deal with some heavies (child murder, parental abandonment, latchkey children, ostracism, psychological or emotional inertia, and more), but throughout the kids keep an essential optimism. They of course learn a lesson, namely that looks can be deceiving: What sometimes seems menacing is not always–and may be in need of sympathy–whereas evil may be unassuming and insidious. (Particularly fascinating is the moral dilemma of the person who might have known what was going on the whole time–how daring, Miss Snyder!)
Oddly, this one and Eyes in the Fishbowl put me in mind of Greensleeves; I think it’s that crazy Sixties vibe. The illustrations alone are amazing, and perfect for Greensleeves (despite the Professor’s oddly simian appearance).
Cover: Mine is torn off, I have read it so hard. But it’s one of those classic painted for the novel covers Dell did.
When April and Melanie squeezed through the back fence for the second time they found everything just as they had left it. They started out by pulling the rest of the dead weeds and stacking them in one corner of the yard. While Marshall stood guard halfway down the alley to see if anyone was coming, they shoved the whole stack out through the hole in the fence. Then they scouted around and found a tash bin that was nice and roomy and not too full to hold an extra donation of dead weeds. When, at last, the loose stones and broken bits of things had been cleared away, Egypt looked clean and bare ready for whatever might be going to happen.