Thursday, April 10, 2008

Zilpha Keatley Snyder

The Egypt Game
by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Recommended Age: 10+

This was a 1968 Newbery Honor Book, whose author won the same honor for two of her other books, and who also wrote a sequel to this book called The Gypsy Game.

The Egypt Game is about a group of kids living in a California university town who play at being Egyptian royalty, priests and priestesses, etc. in a fenced-off yard behind a second-hand store. Using various junk and their own imaginations, they invent rituals and hieroglyphics and oracles and palace intrigues, and bring together such improbable friends and playmates as two sixth-grade girls (one black, one white), one of the girls' four-year-old brother, a fourth-grade girl (Asian), and two sixth grade boys (one white, one Asian) who otherwise wouldn't have seemed to have anything in common.

Their adventures and their friendships are light-hearted and appealing, though at times they also get a little spooky. And in the end the Egypt game serves partly to bring a lonely old man out of his shell, and partly to bring a serial killer of children to justice - an almost shockingly serious thread in an otherwise high-spirited story.

A bit on the politically correct side, maybe, and a bit dated too (that's what you have to expect when you read something older than yourself). But still, very enjoyable!

The Headless Cupid
by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Recommended Age: 12+

The author of Gib and the Gray Ghost also wrote three Newbery Honor Books, and this is one of them. It is a spooky and at the same time moving story about five children, a spooky old house, and a poltergeist.

Nowadays, many of us can understand the way Amanda feels. I know I’ve been there. Her parents are divorced and live on opposite sides of the country. Her mother just married a guy with four kids and moved to a rustic house in the countryside. She has to leave her friends behind, start over in a new school, and put up with four younger siblings for the first time in her life. She would rather live with her father, who lets her do whatever she wants, but she is hurt that he doesn’t want her around. So, she is understandably angry.

Nevertheless, David doesn’t understand Amanda. David is the oldest of the Stanley children. Since his mother died, he has shouldered a lot of responsibility for the younger kids: loud, impulsive Janey; plain-spoken, inquisitive, four-year-old Esther; and Esther’s strange, quiet twin brother, Blair. He is closer in age to Amanda than the others, so they should be friends. But he is too busy holding the family together, and she is too busy trying to tear it apart in a fit of pre-teen rebellion.

Amanda’s rebellion takes the form of an interest in all things occult. Black magic, witchcraft, ghosts, you name it, she’s into it. David and the other kids go along with Amanda’s offer to induct them into the mysteries of the occult, because they think something interesting will happen. But, eventually, David starts to wonder whether the occult is just something Amanda uses to disrupt the household. Then, a visiting repairman tells the children that the house used to be haunted by a poltergeist, and soon strange things start happening again. David starts to wonder whether Amanda is causing these things to happen, too, as a way of getting back at her mother.

Here is a creepy mystery that doesn’t turn out to be as disappointingly simple as many stories of this type. Plus, it is filled with humor, family drama, realistic characters and their complicated relationships. It goes without saying that a big fat “occult content” advisory is in order, as the story unashamedly explores the interest some children take in the occult and the way they imagine it.

In defense of the story, against anyone who would thoughtlessly condemn this book because of this content, I would point out that the “witchcraft” portrayed in this book is an angry girl’s way of striking out at “everyone... for everything.” The real magic of this story comes in the way David, Janie, Tesser, and Blair show Amanda the meaning of love and the possibility of happiness, even in a family whose members don’t always do what you want them to do.

EDIT: This turns out to be the first in a quartet of books about the Blair Family, which also include The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case, Blair's Nightmare, and Janie's Private Eyes.

The Unseen
by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Recommended Age: 12+

The three-time Newbery Honor winning author of The Egypt Game and The Headless Cupid brings us yet another creepy, magical mystery. This one is inspired by the idea that we are surrounded by creatures that we cannot see, feel, hear, or smell. They’re real, but our senses are not “tuned in” to their presence. Plus, those who know about them call them things like reflejos and spiegels (reflections and mirrors) because they take their shape and their behavior from your feelings. Happy, safe feelings mean warm, cuddly creatures; angry, hateful feelings mean creatures that bite and scratch.

So maybe it’s a good thing no one can see them. No one, that is, who doesn’t have a magical “key” to open their senses to this strange, unseen world. Some people do have such keys, and they experience marvelous things.

Xandra Hobson should not be one of those people. She is far too volatile, too often angry, selfish, and mean. She is discontented with her place in a large, well-to-do family full of brilliant, beautiful children. At school, she tends to join Marcie’s Mob of bullying, popular girls and to ignore oddballs like Belinda. Torn between wanting to fit in and not wanting anyone to tell her what to do, Xandra simmers in sullenness and occasionally boils over in fury.

But then, an act of kindness toward a wounded bird leads Xandra to discover the unseen world, through a magic feather that acts as a key. And the only people who can explain what to do with this key are weird Belinda and her even weirder grandfather.

The author of this book takes some big risks, such as focusing the story on a character who is not very attractive, who grows and changes so slowly and with such agonizing setbacks that you often wonder if she will ever “get there.” Plus, the magic portrayed in this book sometimes seems sinister, sometimes vaguely spiritual, and sometimes completely unreal. Is this the kind of magic fairy tales are based on? Or is this something completely original, never imagined before? You get to decide for yourself... another gamble that the author has taken. Is it worth it? I think so. Why don’t you read it and make up your own mind?

EDIT: Check out this impressive list of books by Snyder, who also wrote The Witches of Worm (which is on my short "getting around to it" lit list). With a writing career going back to the early 1960s, Snyder is still plugging away, with two new books coming out this year: The Treasures of Weatherby and The Bronze Pen.

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