Top 100 Children’s Novels #79: The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Another great book about the lines between fantasy and reality becoming blurred. Deliciously fun and creepy. – Marianne Minnich
When I went back to read this a couple year ago, I didn’t imagine for a second that it would live up to my memories – particularly the elements of mystery and mysticism. I was wrong. Though I can think of several other Snyder books that are deserving, this is the one that has stuck with me through the years. – Mark Flowers
Well somebody’s certainly moving up in the world. On the last poll Snyder’s best-known novel had the distinction of being number 100 on the nosie. This time around it has apparently scratched and clawed its way up to a cushy #79 spot.
Ms. Snyder was a writer from day one, or at the very least a storyteller. Growing up she says of her childhood, “And then there were games. Some were secret, some less so, and most of them grew out of a compulsion to endow everything animal, vegetable and mineral with human characteristics. I suspect that all very young children are naturally given to anthropomorphism, but with me it must have been almost a full-time occupation. Not only animals, but also trees, plants, toys, and many other inanimate objects had personalities, and sometimes complicated life histories. Often these creatures seemed to have been in need of a helping hand. I built leafy shelters for homeless insects, doctored demons, most of whom haunted closets and the dark corners of rooms. Although they really frightened me, I don’t think I would have wanted to be talked out of them. They were my demons and we had a working relationship.”
The Egyptian Game was her fourth book and came out in 1967. The Simon & Schuster website describes the plot of the book this way: “The first time Melanie Ross meets April Hall, she’s not sure they have anything in common. One look at April’s upswept hair, false eyelashes, and ragged fox-fur collar is enough to convince Melanie that April won’t have an easy time fitting in with the sixth graders at Wilson School. But April has some surprises in store, like the fact that she enjoys reading and playing imagination games just as much as Melanie does. The two even discover that they both love anything to do with ancient Egypt! In a storage yard behind the A-Z Antiques and Curio Shop, Melanie and April start to play the Egypt Game. Before long, there are six Egyptians instead of two. They meet to wear costumes, hold ceremonies, and work on their secret code. Everyone enjoys the game until strange things begin to happen. Has the Egypt Game gone too far? With a touch of charm and a whole lot of imagination, Zilpha Keatley Snyder transforms an abandoned junkyard into an Egyptian court in this Newbery Honor-winning mystery.”
The book won a Newbery Honor in 1968 alongside Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E. L. Konigsburg (Atheneum), The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell (Houghton), and The Fearsome Inn by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Scribner). The ultimate winner? A little title by the name of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
Says Ms. Snyder of the story, “the beginning seeds of The Egypt Game were sown during my early childhood, as is true of a great many of my books. A fifth grade project on ancient Egypt started me on my “Egyptian period,” a school year in which I read, dreamed and played Egyptian. But my dream of Egypt was private and it was my daughter, many years later, who actually played a game very like the one in the story, after I had turned her on to the fascinating game possibilities of a culture that includes pyramids, mummies, hieroglyphic writing and an intriguing array of gods and goddesses. However, the actual setting and all six of the main characters came from my years as a teacher in Berkeley. The neighborhood described in the story, the ethnic mix in the classroom, as well as the murder, were all taken from realities of our years in Berkeley. So, as I tell children who ask me if I ever write “true” stories, all of my stories have bits-and-pieces of truth–true events, true people, true facts, as well as true memories and even true dreams (the real sound-asleep kind). But the fun comes from what goes on in-between and around and over the bits-and-pieces, tying them together and making them into a story. The inbetween substance is woven of imagination and that is what makes fiction fascinating, to write as well as to read.”
The sequel The Gypsy Game came out a good thirty years after its predecessor (1997, to be precise) and Horn Book said of it, “while the sequel is less well constructed and more meandering than the first book (and does not stand on its own), it will nevertheless be of interest to fans of the first book.” Alas it did not receive any votes on this Top 100 Children’s Novels poll.
- Read portions of the book online here.
- There is, in fact, a Teacher’s Guide out there for you folks interested in such things.
- Look at a complete listing of all books by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (with covers!) here.
The starred School Library Journal review of it said, “Only in the hands of a skillful writer would the characters emerge so lifelike that the reader feels that he knows each one. A brief review cannot do justice to the book, which has originality and verve in plot, style, and characterization.”
Horn Book gave it a passive, “[ The Egypt Game ] moves with suspense and humor. . .”
From Booklist, “Tailor-made for children who love the thought of rambling mansions, garden mazes, and hidden treasure.”
And Kirkus liked it, saying, “An increasingly captivating story, which builds to a risky and daring climax.”
The book has also seen its own fair share of different book jackets over the years. Here’s a taste:
And most recently:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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