cover image THE UNSEEN


Zilpha Keatley Snyder, . . Delacorte, $15.95 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-385-73084-6

Twelve-year-old Xandra, the next-to-youngest member of the large Hobson family, feels ill at ease and resentful among her prodigally talented "siblings," the term she prefers ("There was something warm and cozy sounding about 'brothers and sisters' that had very little to do with the way Xandra felt about [them]"). Lacking their gifts, she knows that she is nonetheless in some way special, even "enchanted." So when she rescues a majestic wounded bird from hunters and sneaks it to her secret basement animal refuge, she is not altogether surprised when the bird heals overnight and mysteriously disappears, leaving her a feather. Xandra knows instinctively that the feather must be magical. The weird girl at school, Belinda, tells her it might be a "key," whereupon Xandra's challenge becomes getting Belinda to show her how to use it. Snyder's (The Egypt Game ) characterization of Xandra ranks among her most penetrating and psychologically true, and the author performs a rare feat in getting readers to identify straightaway with a not especially admirable protagonist. However, the realistic underpinnings impede the fantasy elements. When Belinda does teach Xandra to use the key, the result is nightmarish but very brief—and yet gives rise to dozens of pages of Xandra's review, speculation and almost repetitious efforts to learn more. These rhythms may be lifelike, but they distend the pacing. This story is better suited to readers whose taste runs to the ruminative, rather than those seeking a fantasy adventure. Ages 9-12. (Apr.)