Recommendations from Under the Radar: Day 3
Recommendations from Under the Radar: Day 4

Under the Radar: The Green Sky Trilogy

Books: The Green Sky Trilogy: Below the Root, And All Between, Until the Celebration
Author: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Pages: 242, 224, 224 (2004 reissue editions)
Age Range: 10 and up

Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green Sky trilogy depicts a world in which people live up in the branches of trees, beneath a green, leaf-filtered sky. Gravity is lighter in Green Sky than on Earth, and people are able to wear silken panels attached to wrists and ankles (called Shubas) that allow them to glide gently down between branches. The residents of Green Sky are descendants of flight from Earth, one that took place as the home planet ran into irrecoverable trouble. Green Sky residents are more evolved than citizens of Earth, shunning violence and anger, and focusing on peace and joy. They don't even have words for "kill" or "anger" -- the worst state to be in is one of "unjoyfulness", and even this is rare. The children have spiritual gifts (mind-reading, and the ability to move objects with their minds), although the Spirit gifts have been fading in recent years.

Here's an example of Ms. Snyder's poetic descriptions of Green Sky, from Below the Root:

"He stood on the narrow grundbranch, looking down hundreds of feet, through vast open spaces softly lit by filtering rays of greenish light, bordered and intersected by enormous branches, festooned with curtains of graceful Wissenvine. Shaking out the wing panels of his shuba, the long silken robe worn by all except the youngest infants, he launched himself downward into space."

Although Below the Root depicts a society that is on the surface idyllic, imperfections are evident from the early pages of the book. People are pressured to never show unhappiness or irritability. The society is very hierarchical, with the community leaders kept apart from the rabble (called Kindar), living in nicer homes, and idolized. Certain locations within the community are forbidden (such as the fields where fruit is harvested). People are warned never to so much as glance at the forest floor, in fear of a race of monsters that dwells "below the root".

The Root is the root of the sacred Wissenvine, a natural plant that was adapted through the Spirit gifts of early Green Sky residents. The root forms a steel-like network along the forest floor, trapping the monsters (called Pash-shan) below. The upper parts of the Wissenvine give rise to useful vines that harden when cut (allowing construction of furniture), beautiful flowers, and Berries that cause a dreamy, happy state when consumed. The Root, and the Vine, affect all life in Green Sky. However, there are unhappy rumors that the Root may be withering...

Below the Root begins when 13-year-old Raamo learns that he has been Chosen to become one of the Ol-Zhaan, the spiritual leaders of the community. Only two new Ol-Zhaan are chosen, out of all seven cities across Green Sky, and Raamo is quite surprised to be one of them. He's an indifferent student, with poor memorization skills, and a dreamy manner. His co-Chosen One, a girl named Genaa, seems a much more understandable choice. Soon, however, Raamo learns that he has been selected because of his greater-than-average Spirit skills. He discovers that, contrary to what most of the Kindar believe, the Ol-Zhaan have also been losing their Spirit skills. They've chosen Raamo in a desperate bid to help slow the withering of the Vine, and maintain the status quo.

Soon another young Ol-Zhaan, Neric, two years older than Raamo, seeks his help in uncovering a terrible secret. The secret is protected by a clandestine group of the most senior Ol-Zhaan. Discovering it puts Raamo and Neric, and all of Green Sky, in grave danger. Below the Root is a gripping, fast-paced tale, one that tackles serious issues, but uses the fantasy setting to keep things from being too disturbing.

In order not to give away the secret here, and spoil the series for readers, I'm going to refrain from any detailed discussion of the second and third books in the trilogy, though I will make some general comments. I thought that the second book dragged a bit. And All Between starts out by repeating some of the events of the second half of Below the Root, though from a different character's perspective, and it doesn't really get interesting until mid-way through. Until the Celebration is darker than the first two books, but ultimately redemptive.

The language in this series, filled with made-up terms, is engaging. In a precursor to the later work of J. K. Rowling, Ms. Snyder uses words derived from other languages, to lend an exotic flavor to her fantasy community. Pensing (connecting with other people's minds) is derived from the French verb penser, to think. A bread-like fruit is called pan (the French word for bread is pain). A monkey-like house-pet is called a sima (from simian), and what is apparently a rabbit is called a lapan (another French word). The series also features nids (living hammocks woven of the Vine), kiniporting (moving things with one's mind), and grunds (tree trunks), all words that sound appropriate to what they describe. Some of the names of characters are also entertaining. The pompous novice-master for the young Ol-Zhaan is called Regle (regal?). A young sycophant is called Salaat (salaam, abasement?).

The characters is the Green Sky trilogy are solidly drawn, and consistent between the books. One of my favorite passages from And All Between describes Raamo's father:

"Never one to waste an opportunity for spoken communication, Valdo had, at that moment, great reason to find words of appropriate quality and quantity, and he was more than equal to the occasion. As the words of her father rolled grandly on, Pomma's mind turned again to what might be happening in the nid-chamber".

One thing that I found Interesting on re-reading this series is that although the Green Sky trilogy is a middle grade series, it has several PG-13 elements. There are thinly veiled references to sex (called "love relationships"), contraception ("Youth Wafers" that people eat to "produce temporary sterility" while living in youth halls), drugs ("Wissen-Berries", a mild drug, and "pavo-berries", a hallucinogenic), and even drug trafficking.

There's a bit of a free love vibe going on in Green Sky (the books were published between 1975 and 1978). People live in co-ed youth halls between the ages of 15 and 25, and are encouraged to have multiple relationships, before finally settling down with a bond-partner. The Ol-Zhaan never settle down with bond-partners, though they do have "relationships" among themselves. The references to Berries, which teachers encourage students to eat, to make them more complacent and obedient, made me think of today's Ritalin and the like. The use of gentle fantasy names to describe these aspects of Green Sky life may keep younger kids from really noticing them - I certainly don't remember being aware of any of this when reading the books as a child. But adult readers will certainly stop and take notice.

Other themes are more directly addressed, particularly the question of whether or not violence is an inherent part of human nature, and whether or not it is acceptable to turn to violence if ones own life, or someone else's life, is threatened. There are also veiled questions about segregation, and whether or not separate but equal makes sense for different populations. I was surprised, actually, on re-reading this series for the first time in many years, by how substantive it is. I had remembered it more as a nice fantasy, where people glide around among the trees. And while that aspect is certainly part of the joy of the series, larger issues such as civil rights are also central to the story.

One important and annoying note about the reissue editions: the very last page of the third book was missing from my copy. Fortunately, I had an older edition, and I was able to read the last page there. Otherwise, I would have been very frustrated. It's possible that this has been fixed in other printings, but a word of warning is advised.

On re-reading the Green Sky trilogy for the first time in many years, I was struck how deep these books are, and by how they seem to foreshadow a number of later titles (The Giver and The City of Ember/The People of Sparks come most immediately to mind). Zilpha Keatley Snyder may have started out (quotation from her online autobiography) revisiting "a game that involved crossing a grove of oak trees by climbing from tree to tree, because something incredibly dangerous lived "below the root"", but she's given us much, much more in this series. 

Publisher: (reissue editions)
Publication Date: 1975-1978 (original titles), November 2005 (reissue editions)
Source of Book: Purchased all three from Amazon

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.