Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book Review: The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatly Snyder

This is a review with spoilers.

My dear MIL, who loves to send books to our daughters, has picked up on the fact that any book with a Newberry medal on the cover is probably a pretty good bet for something that we'll be pleased to have our kids read, so it was no real surprise when a used copy of "The Egypt Game" showed up in the mail. But something from my long gone days as an elementary school library aide (volunteer shelving slave) rose up to the surface with the title and author. Hadn't there been some sort of controversy at my little Christian school over this book? Occult something or another? For a conservative Christian school, ours really had a remarkable selection on the shelves, counting on parents to screen what their own kids checked out rather than heavily censoring what went onto the shelves in the first place. And after all, a Newberry book is usually a pretty good read--I decided that this was one that I wanted to read myself before passing it on to my nine year old daughter.

What I found, to my delight and consternation, was a book that didn't fit in to any of my preconceived slots. The book definitely deserved the Newberry honor that it received; from a literary point of view, everything about this book is excellent. Character development is realistic and subtle, and tied together with a strong plot. The writing is clear and interesting. The story involves April, a sixth grade girl in 1960's California who is dumped on her grandmother by a mother who isn't interested in having a child around. The grandmother and reader know that this is a permanent move for April, but April wants to believe that her mother wants her, waiting anxiously for infrequent postcards and accepting at face value thin excuses. At her grandmother's apartment building, April makes friends with Melanie and they discover a mutual love for "imagining" games. An additional mutual interest in the history of ancient Egypt and the availability of an almost private vacant lot lead naturally into "The Egypt Game," an extended reimagining and role-playing of life as high priestesses in ancient Egypt. They are joined by Melanie's tag-a-long four year old brother Marshall and--eventually--several other friends from the neighborhood.

So what do we have? An excellently written book in which children make diverse friends (good!), have active imaginations (good!), are vibrantly interested in real history (good!), and want to play out their interest (very natural) by recreating altars to Isis and Set and then developing and carrying out pagan rituals, sacrifices and mummification (WHOA!). Historically, the ancient Egyptians really did worship a wide variety of false gods. Pagan rituals really did dominate and heavily influence their lives.

Let's jump ahead a minute. There is no occult in this book. There is no implication that the kids actually awaken Egyptian gods. Late in the book there a couple of sort of creepy occurences when the kids start to wonder if they might have, but then (Scooby-Doo like) it's all revealed to have all been people doing tricksy things all along, and everyone is reassured that none of it was actually real and it was all just a game. The neighborhood bad guy is caught and April develops a better relationship with her grandmother, and it's all a nice almost-coming-of-age story about family and friendship, imagination and learning. At least, I'm sure that's how the author intended it.

Problem is, from a Christian point of view, what was actually real and what wasn't? Some of those kid-constructed pagan rituals looked . . . an awful lot like real worship. God has a lot of very pointed things to say in scripture about worshipping false gods. None of them are good. Additionally, there's a lot of confusion (even among adults! even in the church!) about the nature of worship and how we practice it and what it means.

As a Christian parent, trying to guide my children in holiness, trying to help them sort out what it means to live a life of worship, I can't imagine a situation in which I wouldn't slap my kids down hard if I found them playing "Pagan Rituals." There's just no way that it can be a good idea. I don't buy the line that reading about magic in stories is going to turn kids to witchcraft, or that kids will mindlessly mimic anything they find in a book. But the message of "The Egypt Game" is much more subtle and dangerous--none of it is real, and it's all in good fun. Because make no mistake, the kids have a great time and the game is a great game. The author is sure that most all kids would be better off if they were imaginative like this. Am I going to give this book to my kids to read? Maybe when they're thirty-five and raising my imaginative grandchildren.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Jack Prelutsky on Karla Kuskin

I hadn't heard of poet Karla Kuskin before, rather to my shame. Her work looks delightful. Jack Prelutsky presents several of his favorites.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Book Review: Hand of Fate by Lis Wiehl and April Henry

FBI Agent Nicole Hedges, Federal Prosecutor Allison Pierce and TV news reporter Cassidy Shaw form the Triple Threat Club--friends united by their mutual passions for justice and dark chocolate. This second book of the series has them working to solve the murder of radio personality Jim Fate. The problem is not who would want kill him--the problem is, who wouldn't? A bombastic, over-opinated loud-mouth, this is a man who uses even his own hate mail to boost his ratings, handing out "Nut of the Day" awards on the air for the wackiest emails and insults he receives. Former lovers, envious co-workers, corrupt politicians and people he has bullied and mocked on the air provide a daunting list of suspects.

This was a fun read. It's billed as a thriller, but I would describe it more as a crime drama. It reminded me strongly of TV shows like Law & Order, CSI, and Numb3rs. Strong characterization is nicely woven together with almost non-stop action, and well-chosen details about law and media sketch in the professions of the protagonists well. And Portland here is written very much as itself--not just as a generic city. I appreciate the light, realistic touch that the authors give religion here. Each of the three protagonists has a different religious viewpoint (Christian, cynically de-churched and agnostic), and each is written simply and fairly. Our beliefs influence how we interact with the world around us and we don't all believe the same thing. The authors clearly intend to follow these themes out over the course of the series, but I appreciate the fact that they don't seem to be in any hurry to come to quick solutions and canned answers. Real change usually is slow and organic, after all. My one real complaint with the book was towards the end, with a twist that seemed to come out of left field. Would there have been a mystery if they had found that key piece of information on page 50 instead of 250? Maybe not. On the other hand, is it realistic that it would have taken that long for that to turn up? Um, yes. Definitely.

I'd have no hesitation in recommending this book to someone looking for a good piece of beach reading for Spring Break. I'll probably go and get the first of the series now from the library and will definitely look for the third coming out next year.

Three and a half stars out of five.