Rereading a favorite book from childhood can be a bittersweet experience. Part of what’s so fulfilling about the practice of rereading is that you’re a different reader each time. Your increased knowledge of the story, literature at large, yourself, and/or the world makes subsequent readings of the same story and the same characters richer. On the other hand, as the saying goes, you can’t go home again, and that’s true of beloved books, too. There’s no rereading a book for the first time. And, occasionally, bringing a more mature perspective to an old favorite can be unsettling.
For my January/February 2017 Horn Book Magazine article “A Second Look: The Egypt Game,” I returned to Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s 1967 Newbery Honor novel. The story follows a group of imaginative children who, inspired by their voracious reading about ancient Egypt, create a secret “Egypt” of their own. In the course of developing an increasingly elaborate play-world, “the Egypt Gang” manage to thwart a child predator in their neighborhood and exonerate a good man. Smart, resourceful young readers with a hidden kids-only world; the possibility of magic; a murder mystery; and, of course, fascinating information about ancient Egypt: for the child reader, what’s not to love?
But in revisiting The Egypt Game as an adult reader, I found that some elements of the novel didn’t sit so well with me. My fondness for the novel remains, but I can’t unsee its problematic aspects.
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The members of the Egypt Gang are utterly absorbed by information about ancient Egypt — but express no awareness of or interest in contemporary Egyptian people and culture. The problematic version of Egypt in the Western imagination hasn’t changed much in the fifty years since The Egypt Game‘s publication. The children’s obliviousness to the existence of the modern-day Egypt is not dissimilar to my own elementary experience or to that of many American students today. American curricula and mainstream media typically favor narratives of ancient Egypt or Egypt in the time of British imperialist “Egyptology” over any from the current era or the recent past. Additionally, these narratives tend to center on the mythology and religious practices of ancient Egypt above all other aspects of the society — and that mythology is often co-opted for fantasy or horror plotlines. When was the last time you saw a movie or read a book set in Egypt that didn’t have a reawakened mummy in it? When contemporary Egyptians appear in these narratives, they are often represented, at best, as bumbling sidekicks to the Western white hero and, at worst, as insulting stereotypes.
In her Lolly’s Classroom post “Introducing ancient Egypt,” Joyce Rafla asks, “How can you introduce children to history in an exciting and engaging way? As an Egyptian parent, more specifically, how do you encourage your children to celebrate their heritage if their curriculum doesn’t and the general media is unreliable?…When I had to create a bibliography for my children’s literature class, I didn’t hesitate to choose ancient Egypt, although I suspected it would be difficult to find engaging books that are also accurate and do not perpetuate negative stereotypes about modern or ancient Egyptians.”
Rafla’s post contains a list of recommended books on the subject of ancient Egypt (as well as several to avoid). Commenter Jen Mason Stott said, “I am so grateful to you for this list. I just weeded some horrors from my Ancient Egypt section, but felt at a loss as to how to replace them. Taking this list right to the local bookstore!”
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Even with Rafla’s bibliography, there’s still a noticeable gap: where are the kids’ books by and about modern-day Egyptians and Egyptian Americans?
My Horn Book Guide Online search turned up a scant handful: Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books by Susan L. Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya, The Glass Collector by Anna Perera, Grandma Hekmatt Remembers: An Arab-American Family Story by Ann Morris, The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Parry Heide, Judith Heide Gilliland, and Ted Lewin. There are a few more English-language titles in this booklist compiled by Bernadette Simpson, and EBBY (The Egyptian Board on Books for Young People, a sub-organization of IBBY) recommends many Arabic-language books.
I hope that we will see an increase in modern-day Egypt-set stories for English readers soon! If you have any recommendations — particularly of books where an Egyptian setting or identity is incidental to the plot — please let us know in the comments below.