Author Zilpha Keatley Snyder, who received three Newbery Honors for her middle-grade novels, including The Egypt Game, has died of complications from a stroke, in San Francisco. She was 87.
Snyder was born in Lemoore, Calif., in 1927. In an autobiography for Contemporary Authors, she recalls some of her earliest memories as being of “animals, and games, and books,” noting that “I seemed to have been born reading.” She praised her father, a rancher/oil driller, and her mother, a teacher, as wonderful storytellers and credited them as a source for her storytelling instincts. And those influences came together for Snyder early on in childhood. “At the age of eight I became, in my own eyes at least, a writer,” she said, fondly remembering her attempts at poems and short stories, as well as the fourth-grade teacher who collected all her works into a typed book.
Snyder continued her education and kept alive her passion for writing through high school. She earned a B.A. from Whittier College in southern California, where she met her future husband, fellow student and music major Larry Snyder. Upon graduation in 1948, Snyder began teaching school – a job she had intended as temporary while she sorted out the issues of following her dream of becoming a writer. The couple married in 1950 and moved to several states, as Larry pursued graduate music studies and served in the military during the Korean War.
By the early 1960s back in California, Snyder’s two children (a foster son would join the family a few years later) were in school and she found the time to begin writing in earnest. She carved out hours for writing while working around her teaching joband said in her autobiography that her time with her students “had given me a deep appreciation of the gifts and graces that are specific to individuals with 10 or 11 years of experience as human beings.” “It is, I think, a magical time – when so much has been learned, but not yet enough to entirely extinguish the magical reach and freedom of early childhood.”
Snyder sent her first story, about one of her favorite topics – horses – to Atheneum and received an encouraging rejection letter from editor Jean Karl. After significant revisions, Karl published the book as Season of Ponies in 1964. Snyder soon gave up teaching to focus on writing fulltime, publishing nearly a book a year. Her body of work grew to include contemporary middle-grade novels as well as some poetry, YA, science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. One of her best known titles, The Egypt Game, features children who transform a vacant lot into ancient Egypt, the landscape for their imaginary games.
California was the backdrop for several of Snyder’s historical novels and she incorporated elements of her childhood memories of the Great Depression in Cat Running, about a girl who befriends a family who lost their home in the Dust Bowl. And Snyder’s father’s stories about his childhood in a Nebraska orphanage sparked Snyder’s novels Gib Rides Home and Gib and the Gray Ghost. Snyder went on to publish more than 40 books in total; her most recent title was William’s Midsummer Dreams (Atheneum, 2011).
Snyder’s agent, George Nicholson, remembers his friend and client: “I saw Zil in two ways, both as a dedicated author writing as a Westerner and Californian particularly, and as a woman whose personal strength of character gleamed in her novels allowing a kind of tough resonance to shine unlike many of her peers. She was also a dedicated traveler (the only client of mine who ever went to Dubai) with a cultivated curiosity and fearlessness. Her companion and husband Larry is equally unique, a musician and translator. Their gallivanting (as she once said to me) satisfied to a great extent her wish to bring the world into her life.
“Some years ago I gave a party for them at my house in Chelsea when a troop of burly firemen and the police arrived at the same time as the guests. A smoking fireplace and a street battle were occurring simultaneously and she was mightily amused and pleased that her visit to New York had a touch of the raucous of the old West. Recently many of her out-of print-novels have been brought back by Open Road in electronic editions as well as a half-dozen new editions of her classic titles from Atheneum. That all her work was in print in some form at her death was a source of immense pride and pleasure. I will miss her and her new work as a woman of patrician sensibility and the proud daughter of a cowboy in a world now gone.”
Karen Wojtyla, v-p and editorial director at Margaret K. McElderry Books, and Snyder’s longtime editor, offered this remembrance: “I worked with Zilpha Snyder – Zil to friends – for many years, first at Delacorte Press and then here at Atheneum, where she began her career. I loved working with Zil – she had such a natural talent for character and voice. Her characters flew off the page and were as real as anything. She did hate commas, though. She once told me that she never knew where to put them, so she’d just sprinkle them over the page. She was fiercely protective of her own style and the naturalism of her voice – woe to the copyeditor who tried to ‘correct’ an ‘incomplete’ sentence. That, Zil would say, is the way people think, and talk. One of the proudest moments of my publishing career came from Zil. In 2004 she dedicated her novel The Unseen to me and Jean Karl, with these words: ‘To two wonderful editors whose dedication, integrity and artistry made all the difference. To Karen Wojtyla. And in memoriam to Jean Karl.’ ”
Wojtyla also shared an anecdote, one, she explains, that Snyder told to Karl in 1964, which was preserved in a speech that Karl later presented. “On October 7, 1964, Zil wrote, “I have an anecdote about Dougie (my eight-year-old) and Black and Blue Magic. He more or less ordered the book as he was ‘tired of sad stories about girls and wanted a funny one about a boy.’ Recently I read him the first 11 chapters. I could see that he was entranced because (like Harry) his mouth hangs open. When I finished he didn’t say a word. He jumped up on his chair, stuck his arms out behind him, leaped off, and flapped out of the room. For a few minutes I heard him running through the house, apparently making occasional leaps from furniture (forbidden). Then he flew back into the room looking delighted, threw his arms around my neck and said, ‘That’s great, Mom. I’ll bet it wins the Blueberry Award!’ ”