Interesting Women: The three-name greats

library 2

Books! Books were the window from which I looked out of a rather meager and decidedly narrow room, onto a rich and wonderful universe. I loved the look and feel of them, even the smell. I’m still a book sniffer. That evocative mixture of paper and ink and glue and dust never fails to bring back the twinge of excitement that came with the opening of a new book.

Libraries were treasure houses. I always entered them with a slight thrill of disbelief that all their endless riches were mine for the borrowing. And librarians I approached with reverent awe–guardians of the temple, keepers of the golden treasure.

This quote by Zilpha Keatley Snyder in her autobiographical essay might as well stand for me as a kid. Libraries were a haven, when I could get to them; before I was twelve, it meant depending on the adults for a ride, so it happened seldom, but after we moved I could walk to the little branch library at least once a week.

I love thinking about Zilpha Keatley Snider and her library generations before I was born, the result of which was her writing books that came to inspire me as an eager young reader.

To begin the new year I wanted to salute some of those writers who helped shape me as a reader and as a writer. These were all women, and their books hold up for me now, which I can’t say for a lot of my childhood faves. No surprise, as they were all award winners and are still (or again) in print.

below the root

I discovered Snyder’s books during my early teens, in the mid-sixties. They weren’t favorites, but I liked them enough to keep looking for her name. The ones she wrote in the seventies, especially Below the Root,  became my favorites of hers, fantasy of the sort I loved, with flying, intriguing cultures, mysterious giant trees—and a series, rare for those days. I have always loved long arc stories.

In her autobiography, Snyder talks about why she wrote for kids:

Writing for children hadn’t occurred to me when I was younger, but nine years of teaching in the upper elementary grades had given me a deep appreciation of the gifts and graces that are specific to individuals with ten or eleven years of experience as human beings.

You could sense this respect for young people in her characters. They were believable kids, but she deftly wove the adult-to-be into them in the same way that, later in life, I recognized in the kids I taught. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of the person to be in my students.


But the relationship between reader and writer is, first and foremost, skinless–and that’s why it is often so strong.

 Eloise Jarvis McGraw said this in a 1983 interview at an Oz convention (she wrote one of the canon 40 Oz books, and was a lifelong Oz fan), the context being the relationship between writer and reader. The interview is mostly about fan mail pre-internet, but farther down are some lovely words about people for whom her 1958 book Mara, Daughter of the Nile,  was a strong influence.


The book caused one woman to become an academic in Egyptian history. Another fan reread the book hundreds of times. And it wasn’t only female fans who loved it, or found it inspiring.

It certainly was inspiring for me. Mara, a slave girl, exhibited fierce agency in a world tough on girls. I, unlike many of her readers, was not particularly enamored of ancient Egypt, but this book did get me passionately interested in historical fiction, and thence, history.

Only I wanted something more.

The Sherwood Ring, also came out in 1958, turned out to be closer to It.

I grabbed it off the shelf because it had ‘Sherwood’ right in the title, but didn’t seem to be about Robin Hood. Of course I had to read it! I was in fifth grade. I took it home, and from the first I was electrified: the orphan protagonist meets ghosts.

sherwood ring

Its humorous, romantic blending of an authentic sense of history (in this case, the American Revolution) plus a touch of fantasy lit up my life. I read and reread it, later grabbing everything I could about spies, secret agents, and Redcoats versus Yankees, but though other books had that same dashing appeal (who else remembers the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh?) those other stories didn’t have the romantic ghosts.

Pope only wrote two books, the second of which became a Newbery honor book, The Perilous Gard.  Taking place at the end of Mary Tudor’s reign, it is set in England at a manor house, with a dangerous connection to a hidden world.

That book has had a tremendous impact on writers young in the seventies—I’ve seen traces of its take on the fair folk in so many fantasies written a decade or two later. But for me, it was the earlier one, with its ghosts, that engendered that spark.

I met Pope once, in 1977, in company with Diana L. Paxson, who had studied under her at Mills College. We sat by the fire in her cozy little cottage on that beautiful campus, and talked long about history, romantic history, fiction, writing.


Also about fanfiction—she told us two stories based on Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. She never published another book, alas; she had two more ideas, the fourth one exciting her far more than the third, but she felt she had to finish that third one before she could write the next. I am so sorry that didn’t happen. Her health was frail—she’d been hit by the polio epidemic in the fifties.

I’ll never forget her stories of going to college, a rarity for women in her day; she shared a room with her sister, and when the sister entertained her young man, Pope (expected to be chaperone) would sit in their tiny bathroom annex, crouched down with her manual typewriter on the toilet, working away while the other two had a measure of privacy in the dorm room. When she told that story, I was a twenty-something, thinking, Now that sounds like a writer.

1958 was the year another great book came out.


What was in the air during those mid-fifties? My theory is that the smog and cigarette smoke were so terrible, and the political and social scene so claustrophobic that these writers all turned to escapism—but that’s the probably distorted view of a kid at that time who reacted badly to all these things. The constant patriotic assemblies and rantings, the bomb drills and fear talk about the “commies” and A-bombs, the choking air made me want to escape.

And I wanted more history and magic.  The Witch of Blackbird Pond  seemed to promise just that! At first I was disappointed that there was no actual witchery in that book set in colonial Connecticut, but the story was so compelling that I read it again a few years later, and was able to better appreciate it and its delightful romance.

These books all gave me a decided taste for well-researched fiction that truly evoked that other time and place.

Elizabeth George Speare, the earliest born of all these (1917, 1915, 1927), won many awards for her historical fiction. In the NYTimes Book Review, she wrote in 1961:

I have chosen to write historical novels, chiefly, I think, because I enjoy sharing with young people my own ever-fresh astonishment at finding that men and women and boys and girls who lived through the great events of the past were exactly like ourselves, and that they faced every day the same choices, large and small, which daily confront us.

She attended Smith College, and got a Masters in Boston before teaching, marrying, and having kids; like many writers, she had an interest but no time until those kids had grown.

All four writers’ works are mostly still in print, their books still good reads in spite of the passage of time and the gained life experience of readers. And so their books are there to be found in libraries by another generation who, like Zilpha Keatley Snyder, wander there to discover treasures—and maybe who will be inspired to write their own treasures.



Interesting Women: The three-name greats — 35 Comments

  1. Oh, I love almost all of those books! (I never read that particular book by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, but I really enjoyed others by her.) I can’t count how many times I re-read Mara, Daughter of the Nile as a kid – it was HUGELY formative! I didn’t discover the Pope novels until I was an adult, but then I fell in love hard.

  2. I think it’s cool that you could see the person-to-be in your students–the flip side of seeing the (sometimes distant) child from whom the adult in front of you sprang. It’s interesting.

    The Greensky books were huge for me. I enjoyed the story tremendously. The world was so very clear to me: I spent hours and days just living in it. I made mental fan fictions with self-insert characters–this entertained me for many summer days. And I loved The Changeling, which I discovered later and realized contained the inspiration for Below the Root, etc.

    I was one of many who read and loved The Perilous Gard, but I did also read and like The Sherwood Ring–I remember being surprised by how much I liked it, because at the time I wasn’t very into the Revolutionary War period. But I remember it was mysterious and dramatic, and that I liked it. (… And that’s about all I remember at this point. I should read a plot synopsis to refresh my memory.)

    I could never get into The Witch of Blackbird Pond. The harshness of the community Kit comes into made me anxious and depressed, and I had such dread at what was clearly being set up to happen with Hannah that I just couldn’t keep reading. I really loved The Bronze Bow, on the other hand, which I think a lot of people might dismiss because it has Jesus in it (not as a main character, but his whole movement figures in the plot), but which I loved for the relationship of the main character, Daniel, and his sister Leah. The depiction of Leah coming into herself (she’s got mental illness of some sort and is extremely terrified of people) was great.

  3. Good lord: of all of these, the only one I’ve read was The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which I loved and read multiple times. It’s one of the books that inspired my love of historical fiction–in part because, not just the mechanics of life, but the attitudes–were comprehensible but different from ours.

    Sherwood, have you noted that all four of these authors have three names? Was that a requirement or just a happy accident.

  4. I loved, loved, loved all of those books. “The Perilous Gard” in particular stuck with me for ages, and almost all of them I’ve sought out again to re-read. They’re marvelous.

  5. Oh, thanks for these suggestions! I hadn’t heard of the Snyder books at all, but will definitely try them and the Pope books as well. What fun!

  6. THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND was one of my favorite childhood books. I never read the others you mentioned. I found Snyder as an adult through the MythSoc.

    • She was a lovely person. I was so glad to meet her at Mythcon, and tell her how much I’d always loved her books.

  7. I absolutely adored Pope’s books when I found them in college. Can’t remember which I found first, but I love them both. I should re-read those again….

    I liked Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s contemporary-kid fiction much better than Below the Root et al. In fact, I’m in the middle of re-reading several of her Stanley family books right now.

    I can’t remember if I read Mara of the Nile. (In elementary school, I read several novels set in ancient Egypt but wasn’t particularly thrilled with any of them.) McGraw does have some contemporary-kid novels that I enjoyed quite a bit, particularly The Seventeeth Swap and The Money Room.

    Another three-name author that I classify with both Snyder and McGraw is Willo Davis Roberts. The Girl with the Silver Eyes is definitely fantasy, and some of her others flirt with it.

  8. I have always loved Blackbird Pond, and learned not to give it to people with insipid covers on it (that ghastly Junior cover at one point) but my sister did finally read it, and has the book in her second grade lending library for her advanced readers.

    I found the Pope books as an adult, and re-read them still. I am dismayed that I never found the others–but will make up for that soon!

  9. I love all of these books, though I know I didn’t appreciate Below the Root as much as I do as an adult. Didn’t read any of McGraw until about ten years ago and I so wish I’d had her books when I was young!

  10. I remember you recommending Mara to me years ago. I couldn’t find it then, but had read a number of her other books: Moccasin Trail & Master Cornhill (?). My sister gave me Mara for Christmas last year. I’ve been saving it….

    My favorite books for a time when I was a kid had to do with anything exploring the western part of the USA, which was why I loved Moccasin Trail. While I was going through that stage, I read a lot of books probably written for boys. Two of those favorite authors were Jim Kjelgaard and William O. Steele. I read everything those two authors produced, most several times.

    Another author I loved was Elizabeth Enright. I read about the Melendy family over and over. It was set in the eastern part of the US, where I’d never been, and the kids had such wonderful adventures. While the environment and political outlook is totally different, those stories remind me a little of the CJ books (which I’m currently reading).

    As a young adult I found Enright’s Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away. The kids in those stories make friends with an interesting older woman, whom I might somehow resemble when I’m out rambling, doing my naturalist stuff.

    Enright’s books went out of print for awhile, but luckily they’re back in print now.

    I was lucky about libraries. Since my siblings and I went to three different schools, all with varying end times, and we lived on a ranch which had no school bus, my mom had us walk to the library and picked us up there. My school got out first and when I entered second grade, I was deemed old enough to walk the 3/4 mile walk to the library from my school, where I could wander the stacks at will or do my homework, whichever one I wanted.

    • I loved Kjelgaard, too. Found him through his dog books (Big Red first) then branched out. Another “boy” author that I loved was Steven Meader.

  11. Echoing the love for Mara, the Bronze Bow, and the Witch of Blackbird Pond. They certainly helped spark my love of history–especially as something that real people lived through. Sadly what passed for social studies or history instruction where I went to school did nothing of the sort.

    • Oh, yes, same here. But when I was a kid, it was fifties-style history: nothing existed before the Revolution, and it was all rah rah America all the time.

  12. Yes, I remember the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh–I recently ran across a copy of Dr. Syn in a library booksale for fifty cents (after looking desperately for years and not finding it!), grabbed it and ran like a thief before they realized what I had gotten away with. Even better than Disney’s movie, although I was always half in love with Patrick McGoohan: I remember watching the movie as a three-part series on the Sunday night Disney show pretty much through my fingers because the masks and gruff voices scared the bejasus out of me. But I couldn’t turn away.

    But my first love was always The Sherwood Ring. I lived on PB&J sandwiches from the cafeteria (instead of the healthy meals my mom thought I was getting) for a month so that I could use my allowance to buy a copy. And I have read it into tatters.

    Haven’t read any Snyder, though–thanks for the recommendation!

  13. Mara, Daughter of the Nile! I loved this book and read it a few times as a girl. The fun part is that my 5th-grade teacher (I forget his name) had picked it for our serial read-aloud sessions in class, and when he got to the hot-kiss part, he got all flustered and started editing awkwardly as he read. Of course I then found it in the library so I could read the actual passage. Thanks for taking me back.

    • Too bad he couldn’t read it straight. That scene flew utterly over my head as a kid, and I bet it would have to the class if he’d read it matter-of-fact.

  14. What I wish they reissue along with all those favorites is The Lost Queen of Egypt. I read it in my high school library, forgot the name — finally FOUND the name, and then I had to sit down when I read the prices for the used book.

    I can’t justify that much money for one book, no matter how much I want it.