I was in second grade the first time I went to Egypt.
Every Friday, I took a bus to another elementary school across town in order to attend a Gifted and Talented Education program. Once a week, I lived a separate school life, at a different campus with a different teacher and different friends. My teacher, Betty Rose Gunn, was warm and loud and cheerful, the kind of grownup you could trust not to impose stupid rules or assign math homework. It hardly felt like school at all, and no one at my real school knew anything about it.
That year, we were doing units on ancient Egypt and feudal Japan, and so after lunch Mrs. Gunn would read aloud from Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. Published in 1967 by Atheneum, the novel celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2017. The story begins with “The Discovery of Egypt”: April and Melanie, both eleven years old, and Melanie’s four-year-old brother Marshall climb through a hole in the fence surrounding the unused yard of an antiques store owned by the “Professor.” Over the next few months, the children, soon joined by new “Egyptians” Elizabeth, Toby, and Ken, use scavenged odds and ends to create their own, secret version of ancient Egypt.
The murder of a young girl in the neighborhood puts the grownups on alert, which makes visiting “Egypt” a much trickier proposition. At the novel’s climax, April and Marshall go there at night to retrieve a forgotten textbook — and encounter the killer. Tragedy is averted with the help of the Professor. Afterwards, the Egyptians, assuming the Egypt Game is “lost and gone forever,” reflect that
it had been a terrific game, full of excitement and mystery and way-out imagining, but it had been a great deal more than that. It had been a place to get away to — a private lair — a secret seclusion meant to be shared with best friends only — a life unknown to grown-ups and lived by kids alone.
However, the Professor — who’d been withdrawn and apathetic since the death of his wife and is drawn back into the community by the children — understands the importance of the children’s invented world, and gives them each a key to the now-padlocked yard to continue their play.
* * *
That second-grade year was, for me, a bit like this imagined Egypt: a secret world shared among only a few, with an adventure waiting to be continued…the following week. Other books that made a lasting impression on me in my elementary-school years include A Wrinkle in Time, The Lives of Christopher Chant, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Harriet the Spy, and Bridge to Terabithia. The Egypt Game combines all my favorite bits and pieces from these books: a secret world within our own, ingenuity and imagination, the potential of magic, adventure made possible through childhood autonomy — plus the extra, delicious thrill of a murder mystery. But what resonates most with me now is the sense that Egypt, as the “Egypt gang” creates and experiences it, is intrinsically connected to reading.
April and Melanie are voracious readers who build the foundations of their Egypt — and their friendship itself — on books. In their very first meeting, the girls discover their shared love of reading and of “imagining games.” When, on one of their almost-daily library trips, April comes across a book about ancient Egypt, the new friends become obsessed:
Before long, with the help of a sympathetic librarian, they had found and read just about everything the library had to offer on Egypt — both fact and fiction.
They read about Egypt in the library during the day, and at home in the evening, and in bed late at night when they were supposed to be asleep. Then in the mornings while they helped each other with their chores they discussed the things they had found out.
In a matter of weeks the girls have written their own variation on the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet. As their gang expands to include Marshall, Elizabeth, Toby, and Ken, they perform rituals and adopt personas based on what they have read. The scope of the Egyptians’ imagining is vast, and unfettered by historical fact: the villainous god Set’s instruments of evil, for example, range “from atomic ray guns to sulfur and brimstone.” That’s one of the best things about the Egypt Game for its players: “Nobody ever planned it ahead, at least, not very far. Ideas began and grew and afterwards it was hard to remember just how. That was one of the mysterious and fascinating things about it.”
* * *
The Egypt Game garnered author Snyder the first of three Newbery Honors (followed in 1972 by The Headless Cupid and in 1973 by The Witches of Worm). Not everyone agreed with the Newbery committee that The Egypt Game was “distinguished,” however. In her April 1967 Horn Book Magazine review Ruth Hill Viguers wrote:
The story moves with suspense and humor, despite evidence that the ingredients were deliberately assembled. The characters, though delightfully real, appear to have been carefully selected to represent a cross section of middle-class Americans, including a lonely child from Hollywood newly come to stay with her grandmother, a Negro girl and her little brother, a Chinese-American girl, a Japanese-American boy…There is little doubt about the appeal of this lively book with its up-to-the-minute speech and situations, even though it was obviously written to fill current “needs” and will soon be dated. One always hopes, however, for a book of lasting quality from so sensitive and competent a writer as Mrs. Snyder.
How’s that for a backhanded compliment? Commentary by Zena Sutherland, Viguers’s fellow Great Lady of children’s literature, in the May 13, 1967, issue of the Saturday Review, was also somewhat mixed, but positive overall:
This may prove to be one of the controversial books of the decade: it is strong in characterization, the dialogue is superb, the plot is original, and the sequences in which the children are engaged in sustained imaginative play are fascinating, and often very funny. On the other hand, the murder scare and the taciturn, gloomy Professor seem grim notes.
In contrast to Viguers, Sutherland praised the characters’ ethnic diversity: “The fact that the children are white, Negro, and Oriental seems not a device but a natural consequence of grouping in a heterogeneous community.” Ultimately, like the Newbery committee, Sutherland concluded that “The Egypt Game is a distinguished book.”
Perhaps in response to criticism like Viguers’s, Snyder (who was white) wrote in an introduction to later editions:
I was teaching in Berkeley, California, while my husband was in graduate school. My classes usually consisted of American kids of all races, as well as a few whose parents were graduate students from other countries. All six of the main characters in The Egypt Game are based, loosely but with ethnic accuracy, on people who were in my class one year — even Marshall, whom I had to imagine backward in time to four years of age.
The ethnic diversity of this group of friends is entirely appropriate to Snyder’s setting, a Berkeley-esque university city where there are “boys and girls of every size and style and color, some of whom could speak more than one language when they wanted to.” And it’s welcome. Even as we champion diverse books today, multicultural books are often not so much multicultural as they are representative of one particular facet of society outside “the white default.” It’s still somewhat rare to see a heterogeneous group of friends in a children’s novel.
The child characters themselves do acknowledge difference — and then move on. When April’s grandmother suggests that new-to-town April might make a friend in downstairs neighbor Melanie, she carefully mentions that Melanie and her family are “Negroes” (“African Americans” in some later editions). April shrugs it off as a non-issue: she and her mother “know a lot” of African American people, she says. Though Snyder’s original terminology is now out of date, most other mentions of race and ethnicity are matter-of-factly descriptive. Additionally, Melanie makes an offhanded comment about demonstrations she and Marshall have attended with their parents at the university, presumably demonstrations for civil rights, against the Vietnam War, or both. It’s a subtle reminder of the social upheaval of that era, and Snyder’s use of casual diversity reflects her own progressive worldview.
Viguers’s assertion that the novel would be dated because of its ethnically diverse cast now seems almost laughable, given the minimal progress we’ve made toward inclusion in children’s books in the past fifty years. What remains problematic, though, is the way the children play at a culture outside their own. They adopt what they view as the most exciting or fascinating parts of ancient Egyptian society and spirituality. Despite their considerable research, the children often regard ancient Egypt as almost fantastical, and the existence of modern-day Egyptians never seems to cross their minds.
* * *
Almost equally fantastical-seeming today is the type of freedom from adult supervision (/meddling) that the children enjoy. Perhaps in 1967 kids like the Egypt gang really were able to play outside in abandoned lots, but today’s reality (in most places in the United States for middle-class kids) is quite different. However, that tradition of unsupervised exploration is a vital part of children’s fiction. Can you imagine the Harry Potter books, for instance, without Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s propensity to sneak out of their beds at night, investigating precisely the places forbidden to them? Or Claudia and Jamie Kincaid doing, well, any of the things they did in From the Mixed-Up Files? Or Harriet’s spy route, for that matter? The lack of supervision the Egypt gang enjoys (both outdoors and at home) for most of the novel seems utterly unthinkable now.
How do we reconcile the agency fictional children must have with the extremely limited freedom of real-life kids? This dilemma is one that writers of today (and presumably the future) must grapple with in ways that authors of previous decades likely did not.
* * *
As I write this, it’s the end of October — the perfect time of year to revisit a story about mysteries and maybe-magic. (Halloween night even plays a major part in The Egypt Game’s plot.) This year, October also marks the second anniversary of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s death. I remember the pang I felt when I read that she had died. Oh, I thought. No more Egypt.
Of course, that’s hardly the case. For one thing, there’s the real-life Egypt. Though far removed from the ancient society that so fascinates the Egypt gang, modern Egypt has its own vibrant and complex culture, and one can still find glimpses of the real ancient Egypt. There also are artifacts from throughout Egypt’s history (many plundered from tombs by imperialist explorers, to be sure) housed in museums and private collections around the world. A short walk from The Horn Book’s office in Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts boasts an extensive ancient Egypt exhibit.
But the Egypt of The Egypt Game never was either of these Egypts; it is its own world entirely, one that encompasses both ancient(ish) rituals and atomic ray guns. And it is eternal, always ready in the novel’s pages for readers’ return.
From the January/February 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.