Gods of Egypt is here! And Gods of Egypt is terrible. But not every Egypt-centric adventure is as horrifyingly head-scratching as Gerard Butler’s latest career move. One of my all-time favorite books as a kid was The Egypt Game, which is wonderfully written and makes ancient history exciting in a unique way.
Author Zilpha Keatley Snyder had a literary career that spanned nearly five decades. When she died in 2014 at age 87, she’d written 43 books, mostly for children and young adults, mostly with adventure themes, and many with fantasy and supernatural elements.
The Egypt Game was her fourth book, released in 1964. It’s an adventure with fantasy elements—but not in the traditional sense of fantasy. Its magic comes straight from the imaginations of its main characters, sixth graders April and Melanie, who become fast friends when April moves into Melanie’s apartment building. Snyder modeled her young, multi-ethnic characters and the story’s setting on her experiences living and teaching elementary school in Berkeley, California, but the girls’ obsession with ancient Egypt was something she herself had gone through as a child, as she writes in her autobiography:
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.
In the book, April and Melanie (along with Melanie’s four-year-old brother, another neighborhood girl, and two somewhat reluctantly accepted male classmates) construct their version of ancient Egypt in an abandoned storage yard.
First, they read every book they can get their hands on about Egyptian gods, mythology, customs, and ancient life. Then, they painstakingly craft altars and costumes while dreaming up rituals and ceremonies—like when a pet parakeet dies, necessitating elaborate funeral rites. They spend every day after school until dinnertime creating in their self-made Egyptian playground.
And a big part of the fun is the fact that “Egypt” is a secret just among the kids; nobody’s parents (who are all loving and attentive, but also have jobs—most of which revolve around the nearby UC Berkeley-esque college—that keep them busy) know anything about it. The cloak-and-dagger stuff gets spooky when a local child is murdered, and the kids have to put Egypt on hiatus for safety reasons. This is a dark plot twist—again, something inspired by an incident that occurred during Snyder’s time in Berkeley—but it fits into the narrative surprisingly well, given that many of the previous pages are given over to the girls’ excited explorations of Egypt’s more sinister myths. Set, the god of chaos and war, has his own altar decorated with bones and other eerie elements, and is a key villain in the various scenarios the kids play through in their roles as queens and priestesses.
Cluelessly appropriating Egyptian culture is gross when a big movie like Gods of Egypt does it. (Appropriating any culture is gross, to be honest ... and yet, white people still love wearing “Native” headdresses to music festivals.) But The Egypt Game never crosses that line. April and Melanie are just 11 years old. They haven’t spent any time learning about contemporary Egypt, nor about its history since the era of pyramids and hieroglyphics. They’re fascinated by the romance and mystery of what they’ve read in their books, and their thrill is infectious—which is how they draw in customers as tough as the coolest boys in the sixth grade.
The Egypt Game isn’t really about Egypt; it’s about creativity, imagination, how reading is awesome, and the importance of friendship. You won’t learn much of anything about ancient Egypt by reading it. But it surely nudged more than one young reader (besides me) to the library shelves, newly ignited with the desire to learn more about Set, Nefertiti, and Bastet—the goddess of cats, who also wore really great earrings.