Recommendations from Under the Radar: Day 2
Children's Literacy Round-Up: August 28

Under the Radar: Favorites from Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Book: The Velvet Room, The Changeling
Author: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Pages: 226 (each)
Age Range: 9-12

On the surface of it, Zilpha Keatley Snyder is an odd choice for Books Below the Radar. Since she was first published in 1964 she's published 44 children's books, mostly for middle grade readers. She has received three Newbery Honors (for The Egypt Game, The Headless Cupid and The Witches of Worm), and various other awards. Her most recent book, the Treasures of Weatherby, was published in 2006. Her next book, The Bronze Pen, is scheduled for publication in March of 2008.

The reason that I chose to feature Zilpha Keatley Snyder for the Books Below the Radar series is that, although she's written several of my favorite books of all time, I don't think that her newer books have received as much attention as they deserve. Her last Newbery honor was received in 1972, for The Witches of Worm. Many of her books are long out of print, though you can often find them at used bookstores. But she's still out there, reading and writing, and apparently enjoying life.

In this series, I'm going to feature several of my favorite of Ms. Snyder's older titles, and then move on to review and compare her most recent. Today, I'll talk a bit about Ms. Snyder's background and work as a whole, and discuss my two all-time favorites from her titles. Tomorrow I'll discuss the Green Sky trilogy (Below the Root, And All Between, Until the Celebration), and the next day I'll review the newer title The Treasures of Weatherby.


Zilpha Keatley Snyder has a detailed autobiography on her website. The Fantastic Fiction site for Ms. Snyder contains a shorter biography, and a list of published titles. Zilpha Keatley Snyder was born in 1927, during the heart of the Depression, in Lemmore, California, the second of three daughters. Her parents were both storytellers, and she read at an early age, saying (in her autobiography):

"Books and reading must have had a beginning somewhere but it is beyond memory. I seemed to have been born reading. Actually my mother claimed I taught myself after eavesdropping on lessons she was giving my older sister. Then one day when she was sick and I was four years old, I offered to read to her. When I proceeded to do so, she thought I had memorized the book until she began to ask me individual words. Later when I became, briefly, a kind of neighborhood oddity--I had not yet been to school and I could read the newspaper and was sometimes called into neighbors' homes to demonstrate to skeptical guests--my mother claimed to have had nothing to do with it. Actually I think she used two methods which are almost certain to produce an early reader. First of all, she read to us--a lot. And then, when I tried to horn in on my sister's reading lessons, she told me I was too young--a challenge that no self-respecting four-year-old is going to take lying down."

She became a writer, in her own eyes, at the age of eight, when she first learned that there was actually a profession in which people were paid to make up stories. She was a proficient reader and writer as a child, but also a daydreamer, saying about her young self:

"Books! Books were the window from which I looked out of a rather meager and decidedly narrow room, onto a rich and wonderful universe. I loved the look and feel of them, even the smell. I'm still a book sniffer. That evocative mixture of paper and ink and glue and dust never fails to bring back the twinge of excitement that came with the opening of a new book. Libraries were treasure houses. I always entered them with a slight thrill of disbelief that all their endless riches were mine for the borrowing. And librarians I approached with reverent awe--guardians of the temple, keepers of the golden treasure."

It wasn't until after years of school, marriage, raising children, and teaching that she began writing for publication, producing mostly books for children. She says (again in her web autobiography):

"I began to write for children by accident, through the fortunate accident of nine years in the classroom. But I've continued to do so because over the years I've come to realize that it's where I'm happiest. It is, I think, a matter of personal development (or lack of it, as the case may be). There are several peculiarities that I share with children which, like having no front teeth, are perhaps more acceptable in the very young, but which, for better or worse, seem to be a part of my makeup."

Once she started writing for children, she never looked back, producing a tremendous volume and variety of titles. You can see a complete listing, organized by series and by date, here. In addition to the books that I'll be discussing this week, I also particularly enjoyed the Stanley family series (The Headless Cupid, The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case, Blair's Nightmare, and Janie's Private Eyes), and Libby on Wednesday.

The Velvet Room

The Velvet Room (1965) features 12-year-old Robin Williams (Robin Williams the actor was only fourteen in 1965). After losing their farm in the Depression, Robin and her family have spent the past three years traveling around California in their old Model-T, taking work where they can get it. Robin is the middle child, with two older and two younger siblings, and she is the dreamer. She's always getting in trouble for "wandering off". She loves to read, when she can get her hands on books:

"Just looking at the outside of the library made Robin lose herself for a minute, remembering the feel of libraries. There was that special smell made up of paper, ink, and dust; the busy hush; the endless luxury of thousands of unread books. Best of all was the eager itch of anticipation as you went out the door with your arms loaded down with books. Libraries had always seemed almost too good to be true. It didn't seem possible that anything as important as a book could be free to anyone -- that is, to anyone who had a permanent address."

As the story begins, the Williams' luck appears to be changing. Through being in the right place at the right time, Robin's Dad gets a job, at least for fruit-picking season, working for rancher Don McCurdy. The job comes with the first house that the family has lived in for three years, although the house is more of a two-room shack.

Things on the McCurdy ranch aren't easy. Robin is expected to work long hours in the apricot pitting shed, under the baleful eye of the foreman. She worries about the health of her father (whose earlier illness contributed to the loss of their own farm), and what a recurrence of his illness will mean for the family's future. When she starts school, she finds that the families of the farm and migrant laborers are treated as second class citizens.

Despite all of this, Robin never gives up hoping for something better. And she soon discovers that the McCurdy estate holds very special secrets. She finds first an enchanting old mansion:

"It was about the largest house that Robin had ever seen. It was built of pale gray stone, and at one end it had a high round tower. A long portico supported by stone arches ran all around the front and one side. It was a wonderful house, almost like a castle -- but after a moment Robin realized that something was terribly wrong. On the bottom floor there were no windows. Every place a window should have been there were only rough planks. The house looked wounded; like a beautiful face with bandages for eyes."

In addition to the house, Robin finds a small stone cottage in the woods, inhabited by a bent old woman with an array of unusual pets. Robin becomes friends with Bridget, the old woman, and through Bridget, Robin is introduced to the secret haven of her dreams -- the Velvet Room.

The Velvet Room is the old library of the abandoned mansion, Las Palmeras, complete with a window-lined tower surrounded by red velvet drapes. Although most of the house is empty, the Velvet Room remain intact, filled with books and other treasures. Here is Robin's first impression of the Velvet Room:

"From the first glimpse, from the first minute, it was more than a room —- more even than the most beautiful room Robin had ever seen. Her hands shook on the doorknob, and the shaking didn't come from fear or cold. Her trembling hands were only an echo of something deeper that had been strangely shaken by that first sight of the Velvet Room... It was as if she had been there before, or at least known it was there. As if she had always known that there would be a place exactly like this."

The Velvet Room represents a sanctuary to Robin, a place where she can escape from the worries of her life and dream in peace. She also discovers a secret diary in the Velvet Room, and uncovers a mystery. She doesn't spend all of her time in the Velvet Room, however. Robin also becomes friends with Gwen, the daughter of Mr. McCurdy. Gwen is nothing like Robin. She is the picture of self-confidence, and somewhat oblivious to the issues of those less fortunate. She's good-hearted, however, and despite the concerns of both of their families, the two girls become friends. As the story progresses, Robin faces major choices, about the Velvet Room, about her relationship with Gwen, and about her place within her own family.

This is what I concluded about the book in an earlier review, and which still holds:

"Although Robin's story is set during the Depression, her struggles to fit in and to remain loyal to her family while holding on to what is important to her, are timeless. The Velvet Room, and the old woman, Bridget, render the story magical, while Robin's other relationships and experiences feel (sometimes painfully) real. I can't recommend this book highly enough. I loved it the first time I read it (when I was probably 10 or 11) and I love it still."

The Changeling

The Changeling (1970) is told from the perspective of Martha Abbott. Martha, sometimes called Marty Mouse, is shy and plump, and takes frequent refuge in tears. She doesn't seem to fit in with her highly accomplished, conventional family, and she lingers around the fringes in elementary school. Martha's life changes dramatically when, at seven, she becomes best friends with Ivy Carson.

Ivy is fearless and imaginative. She walks likes she's dancing, has uncontrollable curly hair, and wears ragged clothes. She's an expert tree-climber, and knowledgeable about many fascinating subjects. Although Ivy lives with the disreputable Carson family, she believes that she's really a changeling, someone switched at birth by the fairies. And Martha believes her, because it's impossible to believe that Ivy could be anyone ordinary. Here is Martha's first impression of Ivy, entering school as a new student:

"When she skipped up to the teacher's desk, Martha noticed, for the first time, Ivy's way of walking--a kind of weightless skimming, like a waterbug on the surface of a pond."

Together, Ivy and Martha have wonderful adventures. They play games in a local grove called Bent Oaks. They learn to ride horses, and spend time at the local stables. They get into laugh-out-loud sorts of trouble (there's an incident involving the removal of spilled crude oil from some ducks, for instance, and another involving purple enamel paint...). But mostly, they use their imaginations, and act out stories. They believe that real magic may occur from time to time, though everything that happens to them could be explained away by those of a pragmatic bent.

Sadly for Martha, Ivy's family comes and goes over the years, leaving Martha without Ivy's company for years at a time. For the reader, this only lends more magic to the story -- Ivy is mysterious and elusive. For Martha, this coming and going starts to cause conflict as she gets older. When Ivy returns she upsets tentative strides that Martha has made towards making other friends. Ivy is not someone who is ever going to fit in. As the girls enter junior high school, Ivy plans never to grow up. I've never forgotten the chant that the girls derive, to help stave off adulthood:

"Know all the Questions, but not the Answers
Look for the Different, instead of the Same
Never Walk when there's room for Running
Don't do anything that can't be a Game."

I think that everyone could benefit from reciting that one every so often. I think that most kids wonder, at some point, if they might be a changeling, too. Left on the doorstep by magical parents, and holding a secret magic deep inside? The Changeling has universal appeal.

I once had a friend who was a bit like Ivy -- we played on a secret island made of sticks in a swamp near my house, read up about fairies, and took turns writing a joint story. That friend moved away after fifth grade -- perhaps that's part of why The Changeling has always stuck with me.

For me, this book held up completely, re-reading it for the first time in perhaps 20 years. It's a bit hard for me to say whether it would have the same magic for new readers -- it's always hard to know how nostalgia fits in to one's own impressions. But I think that it would hold up, and that the appeal of The Changeling is timeless.

Something that I had forgotten is that The Changeling includes a precursor to Ms. Snyder's Green Sky trilogy (which I will be discussing tomorrow). One of the games that the girls play involves The Tree People, who live high up among the trees on a beautiful world with low gravity, such that they can glide about. Ms. Snyder later developed this concept into a three-book series, but Green Sky first appears in print (as far as I know) as a gleam in Ivy Carson's eye.

Here is what Ms. Snyder said about this in her autobiography:

"Like so many of my books, the trilogy's deepest root goes back to my early childhood when I played a game that involved crossing a grove of oak trees by climbing from tree to tree, because something incredibly dangerous lived "below the root." Years later when I was writing The Changeling I recalled the game, and in the course of embellishing it for that story, became intrigued with the idea of returning to the world of Green- sky for a longer stay. The return trip took three years and produced three more books. Initially published in 1975, 1976, and 1978, the trilogy was later reincarnated as a computer game (published by Spinnaker Software of Cambridge, MA)."

There's also a mention in The Changeling of a wealthy Montoya family, who could be descendants of the 1930s Montoya family (Gwen's ancestors) mentioned in The Velvet Room. It's a nice, inside-joke sort of continuity. Other things that I love about the book (beside the above poem) include:

  • Martha's gradual evolution from seven-year-old Marty Mouse to someone with a logical place, and friends, in her high school society;
  • The wonderfully loyal friendship between the two girls, and the different things that they each bring to the relationship;
  • The magic of Bent Oaks, and the games that are played there;
  • Martha's realistic relationships with her family;
  • The depiction of cliques and fitting in, and what happens to people who are different, at Martha and Ivy's school; and, most of all,
  • Ivy.


You can see the impact of Ms. Snyder's childhood in both The Velvet Room (the struggles of a Depression-era family) and The Changeling (fanciful children's games, like those she played with her sisters). Certain themes and images echo throughout many of her books: friendship, feelings of isolation while being part of a larger family, the hidden magic that hides behind ordinary objects, the allure of tress, and the mystery of big old houses. I suspect that you could see the impact of these themes echoed in my own childhood writings, and in my dreams to this day. Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books have played a part in making me who I am, an adult who reads children's books, and has been know to go around murmuring softly under her breath:

"Know all the Questions, but not the Answers
Look for the Different, instead of the Same
Never Walk when there's room for Running
Don't do anything that can't be a Game."

The Changeling and The Velvet Room have both been reissued by, and are available from Amazon, with the original illustrations. I highly recommend that people who loved these books as children take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, and re-read the books. And I hope that The Velvet Room and The Changeling, as well as Ms. Snyder's other titles, will become beloved by a new generation of readers. 

Publication Date: Originally 1965 (Velvet Room) and 1970 (Changeling), reissued in 2004
Source of Book: Purchased from Amazon

This post is (c) 2007 by Jennifer Robinson. All rights reserved.