So this book itself is not all that old, but Zilpha Keatley Snyder was one of my favourite childhood authors, and she is among a handful of authors whose work stands up to critical re-readings as an adult. She is a warm, compassionate writer who writes with great ingenuity and empathy. I first came across her novels when I bought a box of books at a garage sale, in which there were a number of ZKS titles, including The Egypt Game, The Witches of Worm, The Changeling, and The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case.* I am so pleased that Simon and Schuster has given her books a make-over, because the stories themselves feel classic rather than dated, and now with a snazzy new look, they are being introduced to a new generation of lucky readers. Many of her books feature protagonists who want to be writers, which of course struck a chord with the bookish child that I was (and to some extent, still am!) The Bronze Pen fits this category.
Audrey Abbot loves to write stories, but for the most part, this is a secret she keeps to herself. Although her parents are loving, they are unhappy. Her father is in a wheelchair with a severe heart condition and her mother works long hours at a job she hates. Audrey spends most of her time with Beowulf, a slobbery Irish Wolfhound, tucked away writing or walking through the woods. It is a fairly lonely, uneventful existence, until one day a beautiful white duck leads her down a steep path to a mysterious cave. In the cave is a strange old woman who presents Audrey with an unusual bronze pen. Audrey doesn’t think much of it, until the things she writes with her bronze pen start to come to life around her.
This story reminded me of classic Edgar Eager, particularly Half Magic, in which wishes aren’t granted in full. Audrey’s stories don’t always come true in the way she had planned. It turns out that magic, like life, is unpredictable. In ZKS’ books, magic is never the solution to problems, but acts as a catalyst or means to discuss greater issues at hand. At the end of The Bronze Pen, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not it was magic that brings about a happy ending, good luck, or something else entirely.
There is so much emotion in this book. I don’t mean that it’s weepy or angsty, but the Abbotts are having a bit of a rough go of it, and ZKS is honest in her portrayal of disappointment, frustration, love, and hope. This isn’t a heavy book at all, in fact it’s rather charming. Audrey’s loneliness is palpable, even if she doesn’t realize it at first. One of the more wonderful aspects of the bronze pen is that it brings in together with zany Lizzie, a fast-talking artist.**
The Bronze Pen is one of ZKS’ more recent titles, and I should note that I did not read this one as a child, but as an adult. Regardless, I still got the same feeling I had reading her books as a nine year old, which is testament to ZKS remarkable ability to connect with her readers.
The Bronze Pen, along with many other wonderful Zilpha Keatley Snyder books, is available now in paperback from Simon and Schuster.
*I have since wondered if the books in this box were once owned by a children’s librarian, or perhaps some sort of book fairy godmother. I discovered many wonderful authors, including E.L. Konigsburg, in this same box of readerly delights. Sadly, many of the books are now out of print, including Snyder’s fantasy Below the Root, which inspired me to write my own underground fantasy story, which will never see the light of day. Pun intended.
**Note to new Snyder readers: there is always at least one “zany” character in ZKS novels, sometimes a whole family! Please see the Stanley Family Series for more zany family hijinx.