Write Stuff – Friday Finds: Zilpha Keatley Snyder

If someone says the words kid lit, odds are you’ll instantly think of the big names: J.K. Rowling, Robert Munsch, Rick Riordan. Or, if You’re into the classics, it might be L. Frank Baum and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Now there’s another name to add to that list: Zilpha Keatley Snyder, an award-winning author whose 50-year career is still going strong.

I came across Snyder’s work quite by chance, when I borrowed The Trespassers from my local library. Getting the vocabulary level right is a big part of writing for kids, and key research for my own middle-grade books. To be honest, I’d expected to skim through Snyder’s work with nothing more than professional interest. But she had me hooked from the start, and I only gave in and turned out the light at 1:00 a.m. so I wouldn’t drop my e-reader.

The plot of The Trespassers is standard stuff. Two kids, a brother and sister, live near a spooky abandoned house. They decide to creep inside it one day and get caught up in some ghostly adventures. By today’s standards (the book was published in 1995), the characters and dialogue seem fairly tame.

Eight-year-old Gregory (Grub for short) has some anxiety issues, and his older sister Neely worries that their parents might divorce, but this definitely isn’t Jodi Picoult territory. Yet there’s an underlying tension to Snyder’s work that is genuinely unnerving, even for adult readers. Indeed, It’s her very restraint that notches up the suspense.

Think of it as being in a toy store and seeing two dolls?one’s a scary witch and the other looks old-fashioned and innocent. If you push a button and the witch speaks in a cackling voice, It’s not too scary. But if the same voice comes out of the other doll, well, It’s a lot more disturbing.

The surprises didn’t end when I checked out Snyder’s website. Much like her writing, it looks at first glance to be reassuringly straightforward. But the author has a long and interesting backlist, and is still turning out new books after almost 50 years.

Her first title, Season of Ponies, was published by Atheneum in 1964. She stayed with that publisher for another 20 years and another 19 titles before switching to MacMillan and then Delacorte (she returned to Atheneum in 2007). Several of her titles have been Newbery Honor Books, ALA Notable Books, and National Book Award nominees. One of her books, The Birds of Summer (1983), won a PEN Literary Award and a Parents? Choice Award.

If you’ve already heard of Snyder or read some of her books, her name might not come as a surprise. But if you have young readers in your life and want to introduce them to some new adventures, Zilpha Keatley Snyder is definitely an author to look up. From ghost stories to coming-of-age tales, there’s something for every kid (young or old) on your list.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).