Remembering Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Today we’re offering something special, a moving tribute to author Zilpha Keatley Snyder written by fellow Erin Murphy Literary Agency client Susan Lynn Meyer. Susan is the author of MATTHEW AND TALL RABBIT GO CAMPING, and BLACK RADISHES, which won the Sydney Taylor Honor Award in 2011, and NEW SHOES. Please read on for Susan’s heartfelt guest post…

Susan Lynn Meyer - my author photo

Susan Lynn Meyer

I was very saddened this week to learn of the death of Zilpha Keatley Snyder, best known to the world as the author of The Egypt Game, The Witches of Worm, and The Headless Cupid, all Newbery Honor winners. Zilpha Keatley Snyder wrote some of the books most important to me in my childhood. I still own my disintegrating green paperback copy of The Changeling from 1970, a book I deeply loved, its pages now discolored by time, the cover, bearing the price “$.95,” about to fall off if it is read even one more time.

ZKS n14441Zilpha Keatley Snyder is one of the children’s authors whose work I most admire. And, as I came to know, she was also a person of tremendous kindness and generosity. A few years ago, I was trying, rather cluelessly, to find a publisher for my first novel. For reasons too lengthy to go into, it was sitting on the desk of a very well-known editor who had expressed interest in it. Every day I hoped for an email from this editor. But one never came, and after about nine months (yes, I know now that was too long to wait!) I started thinking about sending it elsewhere. I sent it to two other editors—and then it belatedly occurred to me to try submitting to agents.

I had no real idea of how to go about this. I started to investigate agents who had published writers whose work I admired, work that seemed in some respects like mine. I looked online to see who represented Zilpha Keatley Snyder—and it turned out that she and Patricia Reilly Giff, another writer whose work I loved, had the same agent. They were among the most senior and renowned writers on my list. Writing to their agent was obviously an incredibly long shot. But I sent him a letter, as I did to many other agents.

ZKS 1850137_290Rejection letters came back, plenty of them. But then suddenly a lot of things happened at once. The first was a phone call from Rebecca Short (who has just gotten married and is now Rebecca Weston) at Random House, one of the two other editors to whom I had sent my manuscript before I decided to try agents. Rebecca wanted to acquire my manuscript, Black Radishes! I leave you to imagine the utter ecstasy and astonishment I was thrown into by this phone call.

But I also still had submission letters out with literary agents, and I didn’t want just to publish one novel—I wanted a literary career. So I contacted the three agents who hadn’t yet definitively said no. And suddenly all three wanted to represent me. I was astonished that all of this was happening—to me!—but still, choosing between them was surprisingly stressful. One of the agents who was interested was Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s. I phoned the agents and emailed some writers represented by them—and then another amazing thing happened. The phone rang.

Zilpha Keatley SnyderMy husband was making dinner. I was on the exercise bike, working off the stress of sudden, unexpected good fortune and major life decisions. Our daughter was lying on the sofa, reading, as it happens, Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Janie’s Private Eyes. My husband answered the phone. “Susan?” he called, sounding confused. “It’s Zilpha. . . Snyder?”

“Let me talk to her! Let me talk to her!” our daughter shouted as I ran to the phone and, sweaty and panting, spoke my first words to a writer whose books had meant the world to me. Zilpha Keatley Snyder didn’t know me at all. I had never met her or even heard her give a reading, as she lived all the way across the country. But when I emailed her to tell her that I had queried her agent because of my admiration for her books and that he had offered me representation and that I was choosing an agent, she didn’t just email back a reply—she telephoned to talk over the decision with me. Many writers of her stature wouldn’t have bothered to reply at all. “You must have written a really good story!” she kept saying to me.

In the end, I chose a different agent, the wonderful Erin Murphy. (I had decided to write to Erin after swooning over her writer Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold.) But as my novel, Black Radishes, was just about to come out in 2010, my editor at Random House asked me if I knew any writers I could ask for blurbs for the novel. I didn’t know many writers yet. Black Radishes, my novel, was inspired by my father’s experiences as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied France. Snyder’s Gib Rides Home was inspired by her father’s experiences in a harsh orphanage in Nebraska in the early 1900s. There was, I thought, a connection between the subject matter of the books.

So I very hesitantly emailed Zil again (this is the name she signed her emails with) and asked. I explained that I realized that she didn’t know me or my work at all, and that I completely understood that when she read my book she might not like it and might not want to blurb it, and that if so I would completely understand. But, I asked, could I send her an advance copy of the book?

BLACK RADISHES cover She said yes—and she blurbed my debut novel. I will always treasure the words from her on my book jacket, as I will always treasure the many wonderful books she gave to the world.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder wrote forty-six books over the course of her long and distinguished literary career, books that won many awards and were translated into twelve languages. Her fiction is notable for its emotional depth and complexity, for the respect it accords to the minds of children—to their fantasy lives, their desires and wishes, their pain, their struggles, their courage.

ZKS th_0440400538This emotional depth is evident even in her funniest novel, Black and Blue Magic. This novel is about clumsy Harry Houdini Marco, who lives with his widowed mother in a California boarding house. A strange, funny little man gives Harry a magical ointment that allows him to grow wings secretly at night. Yet, amidst the humor, with deft, light touches, Snyder gives Harry a wistful yearning to live up to the aspirations of his dead father—and though he never fully loses his clumsiness, he comes to feel closer to his father in the novel’s end.

ZKS 220px-TheChangelingSnyder represents children from a wide variety of backgrounds and in complex, sometimes difficult family situations. Robin in The Velvet Room is from a family of homeless migrant workers living in California during the Great Depression. Cat Kinsey, in Cat Running, is from a tense blended family with a weak mother and a severe, uncomprehending father. In The Changeling, perhaps my favorite of Snyder’s novels, Ivy has an alcoholic mother and various members of her family are frequently in trouble with the law. She finds refuge in her friendship with Martha and her belief that she is not really a Carson but a changeling—of supernatural origin and switched at birth with a human child. Martha’s affluent, seemingly perfect family is challenging in its own way: conformist, highly successful, and judgmental. Martha’s friendship with Ivy allows her to grow and develop outside the confines of her family’s narrow ways of thinking.

In Snyder’s fiction, the line between the real and the magical is sometimes ambiguous, and it is this quality that is perhaps most unique and most haunting in her fiction. There are moments when the reader can’t really be sure whether what has happened can be logically explained. Is Jessica’s cat magical in The Witches of Worm, and does he speak to her without words? Is some other poltergeist at work in The Headless Cupid besides angry adolescent Amanda? And has Ivy somehow managed, at the end of The Changeling at once to escape her family and not to grow up?

In The Witches of Worm, Mrs. Fortune, an eerie and fascinating elderly neighbor who loves cats, tells Jessica, “Belief in mysteries—all manner of mysteries—is the only lasting luxury in life” (116). It is this luxury that Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s many great works of fiction give us, as readers—an exploration of the mysterious ways our everyday world comes into contact with the unknown, as well as a profound exploration of the mysteries and depths of the human spirit.

Visit Zilpha’s webpage, here, for more information about her and her books.

And get to know Susan better by visiting her web page, here. Thank you, Susan, for sharing this with us today! 


Filed under Guest Posts