A childhood favourite that stands the test of time.
The Velvet Room is about twelve year old Robin, the middle girl in a family of five, who is living through the Great Depression. On their way to find their father a job fruit picking, the family’s car tire goes flat and they find themselves in the middle of California, back when it was all glossy and gleaming, filled with ranches and horses, and showing its Mexican heritage. Her father is offered a job at a nearby ranch and she and her family settle in.
Robin is a dreamy, imaginative child given to wandering, and in one of her wanderings she discovers the Palmeras House, a beautiful and mysterious abandoned old building. With some help, Robin finds her way inside and begins to explore, finding the Velvet Room of the story.
Sometimes it’s good to revisit your childhood.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder was one of my favourite authors as a child. I would sit in our old school library, which was full of books from the 60s, 70s and 80s in old print, and read and check out whatever she had written. It was hard to find good children’s books back then (I remember I had a book on planets that was more up-to-date than anything the library had, but then, third-world country in the 80s…but I digress) and this made me appreciate reading and literature even more.
Snyder is most famous for her Stanley series, featuring the Stanley siblings in their various adventures, like The Headless Cupid and The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case. She made everyday life sound exciting and she gave her characters adventures—big or small—that reminded me I could be anyone I wanted to be, and that it was okay to dream and dream big. In my small world, in my small country back then, that was really important to me.
In line with the nostalgia that comes from being a certain age (yep, here we are) I have started to look back at my old favourites, beginning with this book. This is definitely a children’s book, not even young adult, probably good for middle readers, especially the imaginative kind who will possibly grow up to be creative and even geeky. Robin is the quintessential dreamy heroine, not quite a typical protagonist, a kind of middle-of-the road character who is very adaptable and who wants to go her own way but is not quite sure how just yet. The kind of heroine that, in this era, would chuck everything and travel the world or move to New York and write a novel or be a problogger on something special and possibly slightly hipster. She was very relatable then, and even now I can see some of what I was like when I was her age.
The mystery is simple but well drawn, and the story and themes are well told. There’s the importance of family and of being there for each other no matter what, and for working hard and making the most out of every situation. Overall it’s all about being yourself, and the choices that you make. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it as an adult, but subconsciously I hope these are the things that I and every other child reading this learnt!
Yay or nay?
I loved this book when I first read it, and am glad to come back to it now and find that I still like it. That said, this is one of my favourite authors so, really, I’m quite biased about all her books—I love pretty much all the ones I’ve read that I remember. Those new to Snyder may want to start with her Stanley series (which I feel will appeal more to boys than this one) or with Libby on Wednesday, another favourite. (This has no romance, so fair warning to anyone looking for it.)
Who might enjoy it: Nostalgic old fogeys, or parents looking for a good, non-fantasy read for their child
Who might not enjoy it: Older readers looking for romantic young adult fiction