Zilpha Keatley Snyder Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)