Okay. You may be asking yourself, “Why is this guy reviewing a 1967 children’s book?” I’ll tell you why. It’s because I think everyone should read this book. I will explain my reasoning in a moment but first I want to tell you how I stumbled across this book in the first place.
A few months ago I received a comment from a reader who claimed that the Vox Oculis book series was “a mix of Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Daniel Koontz (without the mommy issues).” I had no idea what that meant because I had never read Koontz and I had never even heard of ZKS. So I went out and picked up a used copy of ZKS’s The Egypt Game. (Never mind Koontz for now. I’ll cover him in another review someday. Maybe).
One thing you should understand right off the bat about The Egypt Game is that when it came out in the ’60s it was controversial. The reason? It talked about stuff that just wasn’t talked about back then, and certainly not stuff that was considered normal fare for a children’s book. Creepy shopkeepers, single parenthood, occult rituals, even a child murder. That type of content was so novel and controversial, The Egypt Game wound up on several banned book lists, yet went on to win a Newberry Honor award and a Lewis Carroll Shelf award. (Awards seem to be a common characteristic of a lot of banned books). That it is a target of book bans is, in itself, reason enough to make The Egypt Game worthy reading.
But there is more that makes The Egypt Game a worthwhile read. For me, it was a rediscovery of the pleasure of reading a children’s adventure novel. Reading The Egypt Game revived memories of the last children’s books I read, the excellent Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins. However, unlike Gregor, published in 2003, The Egypt Game was published in 1967, smack dab in the middle of my own '60s childhood, when we used words like “neat” instead of “cool” and “rat fink” instead of “jerk face.” These, and other '60s gems are found throughout the book and it is fun when they pop up out of the blue and inject a bit of nostalgia (for folks my age) or novelty (for the younger adults) into the read.
One thing that strikes me is the similarity between Gregor and The Egypt Game in terms of the commonality of themes, themes we often believe are only endemic to our current era, themes that are sometimes dark and disturbing. We are reminded that mental illness, child homicide, broken homes, single parenthood, and scary adults are nothing new. In Egypt, these themes are woven into an otherwise light-hearted story about a group of kids that together pretend they are ancient Egyptians. That it is viewed from an eight-year-old’s eyes—an eight-year-old growing up in the 1960s—reminds us that children at that age are still innocent and naive while at the same time, resilient and imaginative.
One theme in particular stood out to me in this story and that was the race and class-agnostic sensibilities of the young characters—kids that were White, Black, Asian, poor, rich, and everything in between. There were no race or class enmities between them. They were just a bunch of kids sharing a great game that they created themselves—what today would be called an RPG—and they viewed the dark events of the book with a youthful disregard. And because they were immersed in their shared creative experience (an imaginary Egyptian temple) there was no place for external biases to gain traction. All that was evident were the unsullied nascent personalities of the kids and the spirited, silly interactions that inevitably ensued. And in that magical make-believe environment of ancient Egypt, they were allowed to flourish and grow.
In reading The Egypt Game, I am reminded that we all start out as equals—innocent, imaginative, and unblemished—and only develop our insidious unintentional biases under the external influence of our parents, mentors, tragic events, and media. And we find that it doesn’t matter whether the media influences are books and television, as in the 1960s, or the internet and YouTube of the 2020s. And it doesn’t matter if it’s dressing up as Egyptians or playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons, kids revel in the same creative imaginary worlds, protecting themselves for a little while from becoming grown-ups. And perhaps that is a good reason for us all to read a children’s book from time to time, even one written long ago, just to remember what we gave up in the process of growing up.