Zilpha Keatley Snyder Essay - Critical Essays

Snyder, Zilpha Keatley


Zilpha Keatley Snyder 1927–

American novelist for children and adults and poet.

The hallmark of Snyder's novels is her skill in combining the traditional theme of a lonely, misfit child searching for acceptance with a distinctive element of fantasy. Many writers, from Henry James to Stephen King, have examined the relationship between children and the supernatural and have found it to be a sinister one. Snyder prefers to emphasize the benevolence of those mysterious forces of the subconscious which, once released by unhappiness or longing, help the child overcome isolation and gain maturity.

In her best works, her plots rise above predictability; Amanda, the heroine of The Headless Cupid, learns about honesty and tolerance through her discovery that her new, resented stepbrother truly has the psychic powers she pretends to have. Most critics feel that her treatment of magical events is usually well managed. For example, the accidents that befall Jessica in The Witches of Worm may be due to her anxiety over the disruption of her family; it may be her ambivalence toward responsibility that makes her imagine her cat the source of disaster. However, even such an attempt to provide a psychological explanation for the fantastic occurrences does not save this book and others from charges of contrivance and gimmickry.

On the subjects of characterization and setting there is much less disagreement. It is generally acknowledged that Snyder has a talent for creating interesting children, whom readers enjoy getting to know. Her use of dialogue is good, strengthened perhaps by several years of teaching middle school. The adults in her novels are portrayed with more care and attention than is usual in children's books. Most of her novels have been set in California, where Snyder was born and has lived for most of her life, and benefit from the author's close acquaintance with the area.

Recently Snyder published a science-fiction trilogy that grew from a game played by the two friends of The Changeling. The chronicle of the reconciliation between two civilizations on the planet Green-sky allowed Snyder to let her imagination roam more freely than in her realistic novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)

Ethel L. Heins

[When Pamela in Season of Ponies] is given her great-grandmother's curious amulet,… with its cryptic message, "Give the searching heart an eye, and magic fills a summer's sky," it carries her into adventures in an imaginary world. Here are the challenge and the paradox of fantasy, for in the clear light of the unreal world, everyday disappointments are obscured and truth is revealed. Summoned by the sound of a flute, Pamela finds, in a forest clearing, a boy with a herd of beautiful pastel ponies, strangely resembling her prized collection of little glass ponies at home. Joyous days follow; then, during an evil, terror-filled night, she discovers the moving power of courage and steadfast faith. The writing is, on the whole, rich and expressive. Turbulent, unhappy Pamela, offset by the conventionalized adult characters, is all the more striking.

Ethel L. Heins, "'Season of Ponies'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1964, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XL, No. 3, June, 1964, p. 284.

Patricia H. Allen

There are several things that seem contrived and unrealistic [in The Velvet Room]; yet somehow the author manages to transform lack of reality into a fairy-tale like quality so skillfully that the combination emerges as a meaningful story of an ordinary little girl who enjoys the fleeting happiness of escapism and emerges a more mature individual.

Patricia H. Allen, "Grades 3-6: 'The Velvet Room'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the February, 1965 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./ A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1965), Vol. 11, No. 6, February, 1965, p. 50.

Ruth Hill Viguers

Robin's character [in The Velvet Room] has far more facets than the usual sensitive child of fiction who needs a private place for dreaming. She is normally selfish and has a tough resilience behind her sensitivity. Her brothers and sisters are real children too. The reader, however, remembers not the realism of the rather stark tale of a migratory worker's family, but the magical aura through which an imaginative child sees the world.

Ruth Hill Viguers "Early Spring Booklist: 'The Velvet Room'," in The Horn Book Magazine, (copyright © 1965, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLI, No. 2, April, 1965, p. 173.

The jacket explains that the author wrote [Black and Blue Magic] especially for her son who "was tired of sad stories about girls and wished she would write a funny story about a boy." There is a lot here to make a young boy laugh in the eccentricities of Harry Houdini Marco's mother's boarders, and Harry's narration of his story is generally as humorous as it is down to earth. Literally, that is, for Harry is one of those unevenly developed boys who seems to come permanently equipped with something to fall over. But this story still retains that subtle sense of wistful fantasy derived from loneliness and vulnerability which was so well evoked in The Velvet Room … and Season of Ponies….

"Eight to Eleven-Fiction: 'Black and Blue Magic'," in Virginia Kirkus' Service (copyright © 1966 Virginia Kirkus' Service, Inc.), Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, February 1, 1966, p. 108.

Ruth Hill Viguers

[Black and Blue Magic includes] some remarkable adventures…. Magical events, which are always humorous and often downright funny, a good sense of place, and amusing characterizations make a book that can be introduced successfully even to boys who normally scorn fantasy.

Ruth Hill Viguers, "Spring Booklist: 'Black and Blue Magic'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1966, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLII, No. 3, June, 1966, p. 308.

Jane Yolen

A fantasy may be laid in the here-and-now, but in order to soar beyond its everyday setting, it must be written with imagination and better than average prose. [In "Black and Blue Magic"] Zilpha Keatley Snyder succeeds in humorously portraying the ordinary events in the life of Harry Houdini Marco, a 12-year-old with a legacy of magic, because she pays attention to slapstick details. But she fails to lift fumble-footed Harry into the extraordinary, which successful fantasy demands. Her language relies too heavily on the colloquial and lacks any touch of the poetic. A workable fantasy plot—a California boy becomes the owner of magic drops that makes wings grow from his shoulders—is fettered by slangy...

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Ruth Hill Viguers

[The Egypt Game] moves with suspense and humor, despite evidence that the ingredients were deliberately assembled. The characters, though delightfully real, appear to have been carefully selected to represent a cross section of middle-class Americans…. Incidents are contrived to build a story of contemporary urban life (in this case, a large university town in California), complete with the shadow of a murderer lurking in the community. There is little doubt about the appeal of this lively book with its up-to-the-minute speech and situations, even though it was obviously written to fill current "needs" and will soon be dated. One always hopes, however, for a book of lasting quality from so sensitive and...

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Zena Sutherland

[The Egypt Game] may prove to be one of the controversial books of the decade: it is strong in characterization, the dialogue is superb, the plot is original, and the sequences in which the children are engaged in sustained imaginative play are fascinating, and often very funny. On the other hand, the murder scare and the taciturn, gloomy Professor seem grim notes. In this story the fact that the children are white, Negro, and Oriental seems not a device but a natural consequence of grouping in a heterogeneous community. The Egypt Game is a distinguished book. (pp. 55-6)

Zena Sutherland, "For Younger Children: 'The Egypt Game'," in Saturday Review (copyright...

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Ruth Hill Viguers

Although the events are not gentle, the relationship between Dion and Sara [in Eyes in the Fishbowl] suggests the Portrait of Jennie [by Robert Nathan]. Strange, unresolved, it will delight some young people, baffle others. Especially interesting is the characterization of Dion. To one of the students who tries to reconcile him to his very likable father, Dion exclaims, "I can't help it if I'm not rebelling in the right direction. Everybody has to rebel against what he has to rebel against." Dion is so real that what happens later must be real too. (p. 183)

Ruth Hill Viguers, "Stories for Older Boys and Girls: 'Eyes in the Fishbowl'," in The Horn Book Magazine...

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Alice Fleming

The story [of "Eyes in the Fishbowl"] is told from Dion's point of view and suffers from the limits of a 14-year-old's vocabulary and descriptive powers. Moreover, Madame Stregovitch's mischievous ghosts are only slightly amusing. It is especially hard to smile when they finally cause so much confusion at Alcott-Simpson's that the store is forced to go out of business.

Alice Fleming, "For Young Readers: 'Eyes in the Fishbowl'," in New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 26, 1968, p. 30.

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Ethel L. Heins

In her seventh story [The Changeling], the author appears to have lost none of her fecundity of imagination, her sensitivity, or her fluency of speech. But neither has she been able to overcome a tendency to dull the edge of her originality with some stereotyped characters and incidents…. As the girls grow into their teens, Martha becomes more relaxed and self-confident, while Ivy's calm nonconformity, creativity, and family background enrage her classmates. But now the author piles on too much; for in attempting to emphasize the girls' defiance of false teen-age standards and conventions, she introduces carefully arranged, but well-worn, contemporary situations and characters. In the end, the impact of the...

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Silence Buck Bellows

The great charm of The Changeling is in the detailing of the imaginative games that Martha and Ivy play. Those who, as children made up their own games instead of melting into group activities will find the years rolled back. As Ivy said to Martha, "I mean, there must be some way to keep from letting yourself just go on until you wake up someday and find out you've turned into an ordinary adult." There is a way, of course, and some people find it. Mrs. Snyder evidently has.

Silence Buck Bellows, "Games Children Play," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1970 The Christian Science Publishing...

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Richard Elman

Of [the heroine of "The Headless Cupid"] we are told, "Amanda was indeed something else again. A student of the occult, she arrived in her ceremonial costume, complete with her Familiar, a crow named Rolor." After just 40 pages of tedious narrative in which nothing much happened except a lot of talk, I became aware that if Amanda was "indeed something else again" she was also rather a put-on. The author really didn't believe in the uncanny; she had merely dressed her characters up to tell the same old child's story of making friends.

Richard Elman, "A Goulash of Ghouls," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission),...

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Elizabeth Minot Graves

[The Headless Cupid] pokes fun in a discerning way at the current interest in the occult and its beaded young practitioners, at the same time leaving an avenue open to a belief in ghosts and poltergeists. Twelve-year-old Amanda, replete with ceremonial costume and a familiar (a crow who dislikes her as much as she dislikes him), attempts to initiate her new stepbrother, David, and his young sisters and brother, into the rites of witchcraft and seances, with often hilarious results. [This] is more than just a funny book …, it is a serious, sometimes sad story of a child, hurt by the divorce of her parents, who is trying to get even with the world, and of her gradual adjustment to her new family. The...

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Elizabeth Minot Graves

[The Witches of Worm] is a haunting story of the power of mind and ritual, as well as of misunderstanding, anger, loneliness and friendship. It is written with humor, pace, a sure feeling for conversation and a warm understanding of human nature. (p. 157)

Elizabeth Minot Graves, "Children's Novels: Alive and Well," in Commonweal (copyright © 1972 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XCVII, No. 7, November 17, 1972, pp. 156-58.∗

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Paul Heins

Although Jessica's overwrought imagination lends a quality of suspense to [The Witches of Worm], the resolution is limp and unsatisfying. The author of The Egypt Game and The Headless Cupid, in both of which suspense is skillfully maintained by the give and take of children brought together, has possibly wandered beyond her depth in an attempt to rationalize witchcraft.

Paul Heins, "Christmas Booklist: 'The Witches of Worm'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1972 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLVIII, No. 6, December, 1972, p. 596.

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Jean Fritz

In a succession of distinguished books, Zilpha Keatley Snyder has been exploring the nature of magic, not only for the benefit of children, one feels, but to satisfy herself—which is, of course, how all good books are written. Invariably at the center of her magic is an oddball—a highly individual, nonconforming, compelling character, so inventive … as to suggest that magic lies within the power of imagination itself. (p. 8)

With each book the pattern of Mrs. Snyder's magic becomes clearer, more closely entwined with reality. In one sense, her characters are themselves the magicians. Unlike Alice, who emerges from her rabbit hole ready to take up childhood just where she left off, they are...

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Barbara Sherrard-Smith

This most readable and enjoyable book [The Headless Cupid] races along absorbingly. The American author has a keen ear for dialogue; the conversation between the children, and between them and the adults, is slyly accurate. The characters of the five children involved in the story are subtly different and while the hero's father and his step-mother have less important roles to play in the plot, they are refreshingly much more substantial than mere shadows. The central situation is a contemporary one, and will be familiar to many young readers—the combining of two families…. The plot thickens fast and is intriguing, but ultimately more interesting, are the subtly changing relationships between the children...

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Jane Langton

Zilpha Keatley Snyder has proven herself a nimble-fingered craftswoman before, in "The Egypt Game" and "The Velvet Room," but in "The Truth About Stone Hollow" she never even gets her materials together. There are some wisps and scraps labeled creepy cottage, new boy at school, crippled father, and there are some ghosts blowing around the landscape like plastic bags, but there are so many loose ends in this book you could build a bird's nest out of them.

Jane Langton, "Carpets and Doormat: 'The Truth about Stone Hollow'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 31, 1974, p. 8.


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Virginia Haviland

The sureness with which the author draws her young characters and the deep perception and wisdom of her understanding of peer interplay and conversation will draw the reader into [The Truth About Stone Hollow] with its shadowy overlays of mystery and magic…. But the story consists of more than discoveries and wonderings. A clear picture emerges of the smug little town riddled with religious prejudices and family differences. If not rich in the creation of atmosphere and mood, nor always successful in dealing with the supernatural, the story is, nevertheless, fresh and readable.

Virginia Haviland, "Summer Booklist: 'The Truth about Stone Hollow'," in The Horn Book...

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Jane Langton

[In "The Changeling" Snyder] writes about a pair of children who play in a grove of trees and invent a planet called the Land of Green Sky, where the Tree People could "glide like blowing leaves." At the end of the book, Green Sky is forgotten by the children because they grow up, but not by the author herself, who fortunately doesn't. For Zilpha Snyder the notion obviously developed on its own … until it became this book, "Below the Root," in which the once-playful Land of Green Sky is a world presented whole.

Of course the children's invention had to be broadened and surrounded with an ethical framework, until it resembled other alternate societies that exist in books, systems running back and...

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Matilda Kornfeld

After a slow-moving start [Below the Root] gathers speed and moves along with suspense to a not quite satisfactory end—one which certainly calls for a sequel…. There are long passages of description and explanation establishing Green Sky as a believable world, and though at times the allegory is a little heavy-handed, this is still an interesting suspenseful fantasy.

Matilda Kornfeld, "The Book Review: 'Below the Root'," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the September, 1975 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1975), Vol. 22, No. 1, September, 1975, p. 112.


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"And All Between" is the self-contained successor to [Zilpha Snyder's] earlier "Below the Root." (It is so self-contained, in fact, that the first 125 pages are devoted to a recapitulation of previous action from a different point of view.) Once the story proper gets under way, we find that it winds up the tale of the schism between the tree-dwelling Kindar and the subterranean Erdlings, the latter exiled and depicted as monsters because they know or suspect a forbidden truth.

This truth is simply that of the possibility of violence, whether verbal, emotional or actual, as a human character trait….

If you accept Green-sky on its own terms, the tale is lively and the world it...

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Zena Sutherland

In the second volume of an intricately conceived fantasy [And All Between], the pending conflict of Below the Root … becomes confrontation…. Like the first book, this has some passages that move slowly, long monologues or explanatory passages, but they are compensated for by the imaginatively detailed conception of the light and dark worlds of Green-Sky and its deported citizens who live below the magic, ice-cold Root and by the suspense of the conflict that seems resolved by the end of the book.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'And All Between'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1976 by The University of...

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Margery Fisher

[In] The Changeling, we are told the reasons why Martha Abbott's lawyer father and snobbish mother discourage her friendship with Ivy Carson, youngest but one of a large, feckless and far from law-abiding family, but the reasons are stated, not explored. It is the relationship between the two girls that is developed…. Amusing, perceptive and touching, written with ease and point, this is an almost classic example of the book programmed directly for young readers—none the worse for it, but proving, perhaps, that there is such a thing as a "children's book".

Margery Fisher, "Old Friends, New Friends," in her Growing Point, Vol. 15, No. 3, September, 1976,...

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James Norsworthy

A brief review such as this does not permit full recounting of the exciting characterizations, marvelous depth and intricate yet most readable plot that Mrs. Snyder has created [in And All Between]. Although a sequel to her well received Below The Root, this work is an even more powerful story. In this reviewer's opinion And All Between ranks as Mrs. Snyder's best book yet! Her presentation of two different societies that evolved from that of our earth somewhere in the future is a compelling and forceful commentary on our actions today. A superior book….

James Norsworthy, "Children's Books: 'And All Between'," in Catholic Library World, Vol. 48, No....

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Jane Langton

[Zilpha Snyder] attempts an overview of her troubled nation-states [in "Until the Celebration"]. But she doesn't have the zoom lens, or even an intercom. We seem to be reading the minutes of countless meetings, running down the pages of Kindar and Erdling phone books, rather than witnessing events. The air is befogged. We catch only occasional glimpses of stately figures with veiled faces moving from limb to limb before the mist wraps them again in obscurity. One wants to grab the tree and shake it, or pick up the tool-of-violence and leap from branch to branch, firing in the air.

Jane Langton, "Children's Books: 'Until the Celebration'," in The New York Times Book Review...

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Margaret P. Esmonde

Until the Celebration, the final book in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's "Greensky" science fiction trilogy, is the least successful of the three. Below the Root, the first book of the trilogy, presented an imaginative and convincing future society with a strong focus on three Kindar young people…. And All Between, the second volume, retold the story of the first book from the viewpoint of Teera, the Erdling girl—an interesting innovation, but one that was not entirely successful. Until the Celebration founders in sociological issues in spite of Snyder's effort to provide suspense, and probably only the stubborn, the curious … will persevere to the end to learn the fate of the main...

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Margaret P. Esmonde

In her books, Below The Root and And All Between, Zilpha K. Snyder chooses to examine man's inhumanity to fellow man arising out of the abuse of power…. In her sequel And All Between, Snyder attempts an interesting literary experiment. The same story told in the first book is now told from the point of view of [a different character]…. The first reaction to the technique is "what an easy way to write a second novel," but a fairer assessment of Snyder's attempt to provide a dual point of view must be made. The dual narration is an interesting innovation, but it would have been more effective if the two points of view could have been integrated into one novel to avoid the repetition of so much...

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Christine Kardokas

Heirs of Darkness is Zilpha Keatley Snyder's trip into the world of adult fiction à la Judy Blume. Snyder's following is of a kind that enjoys the unusual, the mysterious, and most of all, characters one cares about. One must really want to pursue these aspects in this novel; otherwise, it is quite like any other modern gothic…. One of many in a very crowded field, Barbara Michaels, et al. does it better.

Christine Kardokas, "'Heirs of Darkness'," in Young Adult Cooperative Book Review Group of Massachusetts, Vol. 15, No. 2, December 1978, p. 39.

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Barbara Elleman

[This] suspenseful mystery [The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case] takes the family on a sabbatical year to Italy. A leisurely beginning lingers too long on the technicalities of getting to Europe and on the family's sightseeing jaunts to Venice and Florence. Only after settling in a villa near a small Tuscan village does the tension begin to build…. The story, told through David's eyes, has a typical 12-year-old's perceptions; and the imaginative character portrayals texture the narrative where the storyline is thin.

Barbara Elleman, "Children's Books: 'The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case'," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association;...

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Zena Sutherland

[In The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case] Amanda, although less hostile [than in The Headless Cupid], is still causing trouble; it's her boasting about her rich father in the U.S. that causes the kidnapping. The family is in Italy, where Amanda's mother has inherited property she can have only if they live there a year. What the kidnappers don't bargain for is holding five children captive, and Snyder makes the whole affair believable and very funny. The story would be enjoyable in any case for the action, the humor, and the colorful setting, but Snyder gives it substance by good dialogue and characterization, by a fluid narrative style, and by the perceptively seen intricacies of the relationships among...

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