Snyder, Zilpha Keatley

views updated

SNYDER, Zilpha Keatley

Born 11 May 1927, Lemoore, California

Daughter of William S. and Dessa Jepson Keatley; married Larry A. Snyder, 1950; children: Melissa, Douglas, Ben

The daughter of a rancher and driller, Zilpha Keatley Snyder grew up in rural Southern California; she recalls that her world was quiet and revolved around animals and books. She attended Whittier College, where she met her husband, a music student. While her husband completed his graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, Snyder became a master teacher and demonstrator for education classes there. After she began to write, Snyder retired from teaching. The Snyders have three children, one a foster child from Hong Kong.

Snyder has written one book of poetry, Today Is Saturday (1969), but most of her books are novels. The most convincing of these are the earliest, each of which is grounded firmly in reality before moving into the world of fantasy. Season of Ponies (1969), based on a dream, combines Snyder's two childhood interests, horses and magic. A lonely girl on an isolated farm uses her grandmother's amulet, which she thinks is magical, in imaginary games with the free-spirited Ponyboy and his herd of pastel-colored ponies, very like the glass ponies on her bedroom shelf. Expressive writing succeeds in mingling magic with the reality of the heroine's life.

Black and Blue Magic (1966), written for Snyder's son, who wanted a funny story about a boy, also uses a magic device—an ointment that causes a twelve-year-old boy to grow wings. Although contrived, the book moves along with much realistic dialogue and deftly portrays an adolescent who gradually gains a greater sense of self-worth.

In Eyes in the Fishbowl (1968), a suspense story for older readers, Dion, a shoeshine boy, spends his spare time in the basement of a department store. He becomes aware that Madame Stregovitch in the cosmetics department has summoned the "Others," the spirits of needy children, who terrify the clerks with their antics and cause so much confusion the store eventually goes out of business. The plot is spun out and slightly didactic, but Dion's strained relationship with his casual, easygoing musician father is true to life, and the department-store setting is vivid with realistic details.

Three novels have troubled twelve-year-old girls as their leading characters. The Velvet Room (1965) develops around dreamy, intelligent Robin Williams, the daughter of migrant workers, and a migrant worker herself, who finds a special haven in the library of a deserted mansion where the owners of a large fruit ranch used to live. The Truth About Stone Hollow (1974) is deft and rich in its characterization of both adults and children and in its portrayal of smalltown relationships and prejudices. Both these novels are set in rural California during the Depression. The Witches of Worm (1972) takes place in a modern urban apartment complex. Jessica thinks either she herself is a witch or that her cat is a witch's cat. Whatever causes her to do the spiteful things she does, it is clear that she is hostile and angry and feels misunderstood by her mother and playmates. Although, like many of Snyder's conclusions, this one is abrupt and unsatisfying, the story is fast paced and presents an intriguing picture of a girl's attempts to come to grips with the painful realities of her life.

One of Snyder's most highly regarded books, both by critics and children, is The Egypt Game (1967), with characters based on children Snyder taught at the Washington School in Berkeley. The story arose out of her desire for a book to encourage close and proud identification with minority characters. A group of children play in the yard of the strange and aloof Professor—who runs a secondhand store—and imagine themselves to be rulers and gods in ancient Egypt, until a child is murdered in the neighborhood and the old Professor is suspected of being responsible. Although the story moves with suspense and humor, the interracial cast seems too deliberately assembled and the plot too carefully concocted to thrill young readers.

Snyder produced seven books for children and two young adult novels in the 1980s. One of these novels, The Birds of Summer (1983), received the Parent's Choice award and the PEN Literary award. Numerous others were given the Dell Yearling Edition distinction. The year 1990 brought Libby on Wednesday, which was named by the ALA as a Best Book for Young Adults. More recently, Snyder's work Cat Running (1994) highlights her characterization skills and concern with social interaction. The book is set in the dust bowl during the Depression and shows how a young, slightly self-absorbed girl overcomes problems within her family and reaches beyond prejudice. Snyder drew on her descriptive powers for the next novel, The Trespassers (1995), which tells the tale of children exploring a deserted mansion.

Thirty years following publication of The Egypt Game, Snyder picks up the story of the young characters of this novel to play in The Gypsy Game (1997). The sequel was not nearly as well received as Egypt, in part because reading the first novel is almost essential to understanding the second and because the children never actually pretend to be gypsies, which is a large part of the charm of the original.

Snyder continued with a 1998 publication of Gib Rides Home, a work based on the life of her father, which features an eleven-year-old orphan boy who is eventually sent to work for a family. Reviewer Susan Lempke credits the story with "deft pacing and characterization, along with a background rich in sensory detail…[which] makes this a touching, satisfying tribute to Snyder's father and to all children who face difficult lives with courage." In 1999, Synder's book, The Runaways was released, receiving starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.

Snyder draws her ideas chiefly from memories of her own childhood, from her teaching, and from her life with her family. Recurring themes involve friendship, curiosity, coming to terms with oneself and life, and the power of the imagination. Snyder's work is distinguished by her ability to build suspense, by her literate use of sprightly and vigorous language to capture the cadence and content of children's speech, and by her skill in creating sympathetic protagonists who are imaginative, highly intelligent, lonely preteens with psychological problems arising from their domestic circumstances.

Other Works:

The Changeling (1970). The Headless Cupid (1971). The Princess and the Giants (1973). Below the Root (1975). And All Between (1976). Until the Celebration (1977). Heirs of Darkness (1978). The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case (1979). A Fabulous Creature (1981). Come On, Patsy (1982). Blair's Nightmare (1984). The Changing Maze (1985). The Three Men (1986). And Condors Danced (1987). Squeak Saves the Day and Other Tooley Tales (1988). Janie's Private Eyes (1989). Song of the Gargoyle (1991). Fool's Gold (1993).


Hopkins, L. E., More Books by More People (1974).

Reference works:

CA (1974, Online 1999). SATA. Third Book of Junior Authors (1972).

Other references:

Booklist (1 Sept. 1994, June 1995, 1 Feb. 1997, 1 Jan. 1998). Claremont Reading Conference Yearbook (1973). Elementary English (1974).

Web sites: