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The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Updated on August 24, 2015

I devoured Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books when I was a child, and would go back and reread them frequently. When I was a young teenager, the administrative librarian of the library where my mom worked asked me who my favorite author was. I answered "Zilpha Keatley Snyder." So it has been a real joy to begin my project of rereading and reviewing her books.

"The Egypt Game" is the story of April Hall. April's mother, Dorothea Dawn, is an obscure singer who is building an acting career as well. Dorothea's career has begun to take off, so she shipped April off to live with Caroline, the mother of April's now-deceased father. April excels at keeping her paternal grandmother at arms' length. For example, she insists on calling her "Caroline," rather than "Grandma." April also feigns an adult sophistication that she doesn't actually have, putting her hair up in a clumsily executed upswept hairdo and wearing badly applied false eyelashes.

April's saving grace, and the thing that bonds her to her new best friend, Melanie, is her vivid imagination. She and Melanie play all sorts of imaginative games. One day they see that the fence to the storage yard of the secondhand store in the neighborhood has a loose board. They slide the board aside and discover a treasure trove of interesting things, including a chipped copy of the famous head of Nefertiti from the New Museum in Berlin (see the image below the picture of the cover of the book). They dub the head "Isis," and soon they have developed a whole realm of Egypt within that storage yard.

Melanie's ever-present younger brother Marshall is with them when they begin the realm of Egypt, and soon another little girl from their building, Elizabeth, has joined them. Some other additions to their group are made later.

The kids take Egyptian names, learn hieroglyphics (since hieroglyphics were usually written in bright colors, this necessitates a break in their time in Egypt so that they can save up the money for colored pencils), and even mummify Elizabeth's deceased parakeet.

The edition that I own has a foreword in which Snyder says that this book is semiautobiographical. She was working as a teacher (as Melanie's mother does) while her husband was attending grad school at Berkeley (as Melanie's father is). The kids are based loosely on students she taught in her multiethnic neighborhood. Her daughter was the source for some of this book as well, since she attempted to mummify her own parakeet during her own childhood.

When I began my reread, I thought that "The Egypt Game" which was written in 1967, was truly an artifact of a previous era. The kids run around the neighborhood seemingly unsupervised a lot of the time, but then something shocking happens, and even though I read this book when I was younger, I didn't remember that plot development.

"The Egypt Game" ends with April asking Melanie a question. This question remains unanswered for 30 years. I can just imagine that one question hanging in the air for all of those decades until Melanie answers it. The answer comes in Snyder's 1997 novel "The Gypsy Game", which is on my list, but, as of this writing, I haven't read it yet. It should be interesting to see how Snyder's writing and perspective have changed in the meantime.

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