A Most Mysterious Room: Revisiting a Childhood Classic
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
The Velvet Room is a surprising and wonderful book I never wanted to read again.
When I discovered the book at the age of ten, its spare and elegant words drew me in from the beginning. The story seemed to live in a place of its own—a place radiating the magic of old houses, set-apart rooms and the love of books. It was a story I never thought I could visit as an adult and find that special feeling again.
But because it was so special to me, I kept the book through the rest of my childhood, college, marriage and moves from California to Oregon and then north to the Canadian border. It always found a place on a my new bookshelves, but I never opened its pages again until now.
There is a special sense of kinship whenever I hear the name of a childhood favorite, especially those read during the middle grade years. I can read many of them again and find the sense of belonging in the story and even the old wonder.
The Velvet Room, however, was a book that seemed to belong to only one time in my life. As a child, strange to think now, it never occurred to me to even find out if the author had written any other books (something I always looked for with other favorites). I even carried that same feeling into adulthood. It was a book that lived in a special, but closed, place of my childhood.
When I wrote a blog about special places in children’s literature (find it here), I finally took The Velvet Room down from its shelf—not to pack in a box for another move, but to try reading about the most magical and mysterious reading place of all.
I did hesitate before opening the cover, but I needed to know:- did it still contain the same magic for me? I wanted to find out. Inside, I found the pages were clean but had mellowed into different shades of cream and brown. The cover was brittle. With a feeling as fragile as the cover, I began reading.
The Velvet Room, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, tells the story of twelve-year-old Robin. Ever since her father became ill and the family had to leave their home in 1934, she had become a wanderer:
"There had been three years of living in tents and shacks, and even in the old Model T; so a steady job for Dad had come to mean, more than anything else, a house to live in—a real house with a front porch, shiny floors, and things around that were there just to be beautiful, like pictures and curtains."
Robin feels like a wanderer outside, but the worst is feeling like a wanderer inside, with "uncomfortable hollows, empty except for vague longings—like when you’re hungry, but not for anything you can have."
After losing her home, she feels disconnected from herself and her family. Only a real home, she believes, will fix the lonely ache inside and make her life perfect. Then, she discovers the Velvet Room and everything changes, but in ways she never expected.
Finding the Magic
Reliving the magic of stories is a chancy thing. And yet, the story about Robin, to my relief, touched my imagination again, I found the same elusive connection I did as a ten-year-old searching for stories that were special. In only one place did I surface from the narrative. There is a brief portrayal of a secondary character that is dated and wince-worthy.
Beyond that, I found The Velvet Room is still enchanting, even without any wizards to be found in its pages (although there is one wise and unusual character who comes close). It is one of the best books I've read that finds the heart of what reading and books can mean to a child.
Only in rereading the book did it occur to me that I could find out more about the author now. I typed her name on my modern computer, expecting to see perhaps a few lines about a writer still shrouded in mystery.
I learned the author with the unusual name had her own website. It seemed as surprising to me as finding out that Dorothy Gale had just returned from a jaunt to Oz and uploaded a picture of herself and Toto on Twitter.
Once I adjusted to the absence of mystery, I delved into her website. I found that the author published over 40 books during her lifetime, wrote three Newbery Honor Books and possessed a lively sense of humor. I was saddened to learn she passed away at the age of 87 in 2014.
A Love of Books
A detailed autobiography on her site was delightful and gave a glimpse of her personality. I found I was in good company because of my own love of books and libraries. Zilpha Keatley Snyder wrote:
"Books and reading must have had a beginning somewhere but it is beyond memory. I seemed to have been born reading...
"Books! 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..."
Sadly, her website has been taken down. I'm glad I captured her quote when I had the chance.
And, I’m very glad I found there is still magic in her words and in the Velvet Room.
Linda Borromeo enjoys reading children's books so much she decided to write her own. Mystery Shores is filled with lighthouses, animals, birds, a traveling library and secrets that young sleuths Christie and Melina must solve.