True Story: The Egypt Game

On Episode 43 of the podcast, writer and editor Andrea Bartz and I took a little trip to the land of Egypt… well, the version of the land of Egypt created by the kid protagonists in Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. Andrea and I reminisced about how this Newbery Honor winner had been each of our favorite favorites for a year or so when we were growing up. We swapped notes about some of the (potentially problematic) ways that our elementary schools taught about ancient and international cultures back in the nineties. We spoke about the value of imagination and the rich characters and how cool it was that the kids in this book are resourceful enough to build a world of their own in the backyard of a local antique shop without the help of Google or Amazon Prime (what? you can’t overnight magic markers? the horror!). And in true SSR fashion, we of course spoke about some of the elements of this beloved book that have aged slightly less well.

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On the whole, I’d say that the conversation that Andrea and I had about The Egypt Game back in April was a positive one. While I couldn’t say that the reread necessarily made me love the book all the more, coming back to it was a nice experience! It’s always good to be reminded of the things you were crazy about as a kid… and since the book was a favorite favorite for me, it felt that much more special.

Whenever I come to the end of a recording for the podcast, I realize that I still have notes! So many notes! I can never quite share all of my opinions about a book in the hour that I spend chatting with each guest, so every week in this True Story feature, I offer a few more observations. Typically, installments of True Story will focus on the book we’ve discussed on the new episode of SSR from that week, but since we’re currently on a brief hiatus from new episodes, I’m throwing it back to a title from an earlier show! (You can listen to the episode here and get a refresher on The Egypt Game from this summary, if that’s helpful.)

Here are some of my additional thoughts (AKA the True Story)…

The Egypt Game makes learning and curiosity look really cool.

Main characters April and Melanie bond because they are both fascinated with ancient cultures. I loved that curiosity and intelligence was the basis of their friendship! Even more, I loved that Zilpha Keatley Snyder took this idea a step further by setting up the Egypt Game as a thing that popular kids like Ken and Toby would want to be part of. The boys were so eager to be invited to play that they were willing to cut a deal with a group of girls they barely knew! I think that’s a really great message for kids who are questioning whether or not their interests or brains are “cool.”

When kids create their own world like they do in this book, it feels like they have a lot of agency.

I’ve spoken about this on a few episodes of the podcast, but I absolutely loved books in which kids were physically building their own worlds and spaces. In addition to The Egypt Game, the Boxcar Children series and Bridge to Terabithia are great examples. At the time, I think I liked imagining what it would actually be like as a kid to have access to the materials necessary to do this — and more than that, the freedom to do so in a creative way.

When I consider this kid lit trope from a grown-up perspective, I think I just loved the idea of kids my age having agency over their lives and spaces. That sense of control felt really satisfying! It didn’t hurt that I was a pretty imaginative kid myself, and I wanted to build my own world, too.

The situation with main character April and her mom is actually really upsetting.

April’s mom Dorothea is off trying to get famous (I think I refer to her as the equivalent of a Bravo-lebrity in the episode), which is why April is now living with her grandmother in northern California. Obviously, I have all of the respect for a single mom chasing her dreams, but she’s pretty negligent — and hurtful — in the way she handles the whole thing. Dorothea is barely in touch with her daughter, she keeps pushing back the date when they can be reunited for extremely vague reasons, and she even gets married while April is gone! (And you know that girl would lovvvve being part of a wedding.) While I’m sure I could put myself in April’s shoes and feel sad about all of it when I read this as a kid, I definitely found myself picking up on Dorothea’s patterns more this time around, and it broke my heart. April was such a cool and interesting kid, and I hated that her mom couldn’t see that… especially because April was constantly defending her when others had their doubts.

I don’t know that this book could have happened in 2019.

Cultural appropriation, anyone? Yeah, this would definitely be an issue today.

If, like me, you loved this book when you were growing up, I think we can agree that, since The Egypt Game was written in the seventies, it comes from a totally different context than our current one. Cultural appropriation was not part of the conversation at that time, and I have no doubt that Zilpha Keatley Snyder was actually trying to put together a cast of young characters who were celebrating Egyptian culture when she wrote this book.

That being said, I think it’s worth noting that the premise would potentially run into issues today. The kids (as much as I love them!) aren’t acknowledging the real struggles of ancient Egyptians or the existence of people in modern Egypt! Instead, their relationship with Egypt is purely performative.

The power struggles between the boys and the girls are really interesting (and funny).

We touch on this briefly in the episode, but I enjoyed this element of the book so much that I think it deserves an extra shoutout! The way that Zilpha Keatley Snyder wrote the relationship between the Egypt Game’s OG ladies (April, Melanie, and Elizabeth) and the “cool guys” who eventually join them (Ken and Toby) felt so real to me. I love that the girls are on guard when the boys join them, and that they want to make sure that their ideas take precedence, since they were the ones to invent the game in the first place. There’s this weird tension underlying all of their conversations because they’re not quiiiiiite comfortable playing with each other yet, but everyone’s also trying to get their way at all times.

Small changes in language throughout the book show that April is bonding with her grandmother.

Andrea and I didn’t get a chance to talk much about April’s grandmother when we recorded the episode, but I think she’s actually a really interesting character! She’s taken her granddaughter into her home while her son’s ex is off trying to get famous (a complex dynamic in itself), and is doing her best to raise her while working full-time. And let’s be honest — I love April, but she is not an easy customer! When we meet these characters, there’s definitely an adjustment period going on as she eases into her new life.

For the majority of the book, April exclusively refers to her grandmother by her “real” name — Caroline. Yes, this demonstrates April’s sassy, independent attitude, but it also helps to make clear throughout the story that the girl is doing everything she can to maintain a healthy emotional distance between herself and her grandmother. She’s holding out hope that her mom is going to come back soon so she can resume her seemingly glamorous life in Hollywood, and as long as she doesn’t allow herself to bond with Caroline, that seems like a more likely scenario. Right? Right. There’s a very subtle shift toward the end of the book when April is involved in the dangerous attack in the land of Egypt. She starts calling her grandmother “Grandma!” It seems like she’s starting to let her walls down (Bachelorette-speak over here) and get comfortable in her new home, with her new family.

Listen to the podcast episode about The Egypt Game here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about The Egypt Game. Share them with me in the comments below.

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