Zilpha Keatley Snyder is a multiple Newbery Honor winner. She has written dozens of children’s books including The Changeling, a book so beautiful and real that it hurts. She has written real-life books, magical books, scary books, beautiful books, fantastical books, and books that are a mix of all of the above. She, very sadly, passed away last year, and this means I will never be pleasantly surprised by one of her new books, ever again. Sigh.
So it galls me not a little that this cover has, as its endorsement, “Loathed by Lemony Snicket“. Lemony Snicket is the pen name for Daniel Handler, a relative pip-squeak who was barely off of the bottle when Snyder was already churning out award-winners (Handler was born in 1970; Snyder had published seven books by then. Wiki says that Handler published his first book in 1998; Snyder had published an additional 29 books by then).
I may be a little old-school, but I think that when one has so many years of seniority, experience, and plain good books under her belt, she should not require A Stamp of Approval, much less one from a relative newcomer. And I prefer Snyder to Snickett (in fact, I’ve never been able to get through any of the Lemony Snickett books, not even when I was working long hours in the children’s section of a bookstore). But if I was “in marketing” (which I am not) I might see the good sense in taking a hip young relatively-recently-syndicated thing and asking him to endorse a book whose author carries the faint patina (I won’t say tarnish because I don’t want to turn this post into even more of a diatribe on age-ism) of being neither hip nor young.
I wish I could follow all of this ranting with a rave review, I do. But The Bronze Pen is not my favourite Snyder book, nor is it the most arresting. It has a lot of great things in it (fantasy, suspense, good intentions gone awry, and intelligent waterfowl), but for some reason the usual magic was not quite there. I reread Snyder relatively regularly, so I know it’s not because I have outgrown her. I think that this book, though, is not one of her timeless ones.
The Bronze Pen is about Audrey Abbot, a 12-year-old girl who dreams of being a writer. Her father has a chronic heart problem that makes him weak enough that he cannot work. Her mother has a job that sucks up all of her time and a nasty boss who sucks up all of her energy (or whatever energy is left after caring for her husband, her daughter, the household finances, and the pets). Audrey is appears to have a pretty good relationship with her parents. Which is why, I guess, she thinks it is okay to tell them about meeting an old lady in a cave on the hill in their town. She is also conscientious and doesn’t want to cause her parents unnecessary worry – which is why she thinks it is okay not to tell her parents that the old lady in the cave is mysterious, creepy, summoned her using a white duck, and gave her a mysterious gift of a bronze pen.
Let me just take a moment to say, for the record, that if I had a 12-year-old daughter who was accepting mysterious gifts from creepy old ladies who use waterfowl to lure unsuspicious children to their dark dank cave-dwellings, I would want to know. It’s only unnecessary worry if it’s unnecessary. In this case, I would think worrying would be necessary. But of course, having parental parents snatch away the pen and return it to its rightful and creepy owner would kill the story.
Anyways – back to the Bronze Pen. Audrey uses it to write a few story ideas in her notebook and soon realizes that the pen makes her stories come true – sort of – for the day anyhow – and not exactly as one might expect. The pen is (SPOILER, but only if you don’t know how fairy tale gifts usually work) a double-edged sword (as an aside, aren’t most swords double-edged? I guess cutlasses are not…). Once she realizes the power of the pen, Audrey experiments with making things happen until she finds that sometimes, when you don’t dot all of your i’s and cross all your t’s, bad things can happen to make good things happen. In horror, she returns the pen to the cave along with its curse…only to find that things do work out in the end. Contrite (and greedy for more?) she returns to the cave, but the pen, its mysterious giver, and the duck, are gone.
And that, my friends, is that.
So why am I giving this a low (for Snyder) rating? I don’t know – it’s just missing some of the Zilpha Zing. Audrey’s parents, her best friend and their family try to be Real People with three dimensions, they really do. But they’re not quite. The mystery duck is suitably eccentric and the quirky old lady is chills-on-your-spine creepy. But they’re not around for much of the story. Audrey’s experiments with the pen are just so-so. After many, many years of reading Edith Nesbit and some handful of years reading Edward Eager (thank you, Vicky!), I just expect childhood misadventures to be something more.
Reading Ages: 10-13ish, I would guess. It isn’t a difficult book or super sophisticated, but it is a proper chapter book. An advanced 10-year-old could read it easily. It is about a 12-year-old, which is always more interesting to, well, 12-year-olds.
Rating: B-. Of course, maybe I’m just bitter that my childhood dreams of becoming a writer have ended with me either blogging or writing only for the office. A child who dreams of being a writer might well find a kindred spirit in Audrey. For them, the book would likely be a B or a B+.
Life Lessons from Zilpha: “Write wisely and to good purpose” and “any furred or feathered creature could be an important messenger”.