04 March 2022

Reading in Soccer Bars: The Egypt Game

April is 11 years old when her airhead Hollywood actress mom sends her to live with grandma in Berkeley while Mom gets a little Me Time. Grandma is a little off-putting, probably because, as much as she loves her family, she doesn’t relish being the de facto long-term caregiver for her granddaughter. However, it’s not long before April makes two new friends in the Casa Rosada, Grandma’s old apartment building—Melanie and her younger brother Marshall. While playing in the backyard behind an old antiques store, the children discover a beat-up plaster bust of Nefertiti. They carefully install it in a ramshackle outdoor shed, creating a temple to the ancient queen, and then embark on an imaginative, Egyptian-themed role-playing game that will occupy what remains of their summer and alleviate the boredom of life when the new school year begins.

That’s the premise of a middle grade children’s book titled The Egypt Game, the first in a short series numbering just two titles. The first book was published in 1967. The author is Zilpha Keatley Snyder, who wrote 46 books for kids, and was awarded three Newbery Honor awards for three of her titles. Snyder lived and taught school in California, where this book is set. She died in 2014 at the age of 87.

I confess that I’d never heard of the book, or its author, until it was mentioned by the crime writer Laura Lippman during a Bouchercon panel. She described the book as a fascinating work for a specific reason I won’t divulge just yet. I read it last summer at the soccer bar in town, hunched over a pint and some food truck tacos. And as the book wrapped, I wept, so sweet was its conclusion.

At first the two girls and the younger brother are the only players of the game. After reading a book about ancient Egypt at the local library, they design hilarious costumes from everyday items, and concoct bizarre, scary, and often accurate Egyptian rituals which they enact at their homemade temple. Every random piece of junk they find in their urban environment is repurposed in some way for their games. Eventually, as they make more friends, the initial core of three players grows to four, then six, when two older boys join the fun.

It sounds like a sweet, wholesome story. But their neighborhood harbors a horror that most children’s book writers would not dare touch, in 1967 or 2022. As you might imagine, that is the point Laura Lippman made on the panel that day.
“By the next day it was common knowledge. A little girl who lived in the neighborhood had been killed. She hadn’t gone to Wilson School, so April and Melanie had barely known her, but her home was only a few blocks away from the Casa Rosada. Like all children in the neighborhood, and in all neighborhoods for that matter, she had been warned about strangers—but she must have forgotten. She had been on her way to the drugstore—the very one where April had purchased her eyelashes—in the early evening, and she had never returned. The next day her body had been found in the marshland near the bay.

“It was a terrible and shocking thing. But there was something more terrifying and threatening to the parents of the neighborhood. It had happened before. Almost a year before, a little boy from the same area had disappeared in almost the same way; and the police were saying that it looked as if the guilty person was a resident of the neighborhood.”
Mysteries aimed at kids tend to focus on murderless crimes such as stolen objects, secrets, missing people and pets, and the like. A subplot concerning the murder of a child is unthinkable fare, especially in today’s timid publishing market. The new murder appears about a third of the way into the book, and from that point on, all the action is played out against the backdrop of those killings. I read on, wondering just how in the heck Snyder was going to pull this off. She chooses to be completely up front and matter-of-fact about everything, trusting that her readers are mature enough to handle whatever she throws at them. And so we get scenes of anxious parents and teachers trying to micromanage the children’s lives and schedule. And we have the kids sweeping away fear so they can sneak off and play the Egypt game. Along the way, they stumble across clues, mysterious characters, and scenarios that make them wonder such things as, “Why is the man who runs the antiques shop so reclusive?”

I have to admit that I’d be too chicken to attempt such a story. But Snyder gets high marks for creating a very realistic world in the first place. In her preface, she tells us that the kids in the book look like the kids she taught in her classroom back in the day. They are white, African American, Asian, Latino. The grown-ups feel like real people who are struggling with the usual grown-up concerns and trying to put on brave face for the children in their care. There’s a scene where April gets a letter from her vapid Mom. April reads the letter three times, Snyder says, “and felt around inside herself for reactions. She found some, all right, both good and bad; but not nearly as much either way as she would have expected.” That’s very easy prose for a child to read and understand. It conveys so much. April has grown in the course of the novel. She’s not nearly as concerned as she was in Chapter 1 about her mother’s flakiness. The whole scene subtly teaches how human beings might analyze their emotions in a non-judgmental way.

The dark mystery is indeed resolved by the book’s end. The kids get to play detective, though it’s not their primary focus. They just want to have fun and get on with their adventures. They wish grown-ups would not be so weird.

Ancient Egyptian crown, fashioned out of a plastic bowling pin, and cardboard.

It’s funny, the mix of reactions I’ve gotten on the tale. Lippman is a fan, as is an author friend of mine who writes for kids. (Both are bestselling authors.) Because I was reading this book in a public place, my choice of reading material became fodder for discussion. One woman, a schoolteacher, told me she had the book in her classroom and had used it as a prelude to teaching Egyptian history. “It’s so boring,” she said, guzzling her cocktail. Another woman, slightly younger, ran across the bar at half-time to tell me that this had been her favorite book in childhood. “Are you loving it? I totally looooooooved it!”

Know what? I totally did.

* * * 


  1. I just put in a request at my local library! I want to read this - for one thing, I grew up in a neighborhood riddled with secrets. None, as far as I know, was murder, but there was a lot of sexual abuse going on, so...

    1. I think you will like it, Eve. When you do read it, I would be interested in your reaction to the solution of the mystery.

  2. I just ordered it through my library too, Joe.

    Like you, I'd be too chicken to introduce some topics, especially in a 'trigger'-happy climate. I was reading a thread on-line where self-pubbers were seriously discussing the necessity of trigger warnings. But our ancestors… even Tom Sawyer witnessed a murder. I was fine with that back then.

    1. I had completely forgotten about Tom Sawyer. Great example. Let me know what you think after you read TEG.

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