A Most Mysterious Room: Revisiting a Childhood Classic
The Velvet Room is a surprising and wonderful book that 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 I might not find as an adult.
I kept the book with me through the rest of my childhood, college, marriage and several moves. It always found a place on my bookshelf, but I never opened its pages again until now.
There is a special sense of kinship whenever I hear the name of a meaningful book from the past. I can read many of them again and find the old sense of belonging in the story.
The Velvet Room became a story to read once, and then to keep in its own unique place in my memory. As a child, it never occurred to me to 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.
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 finally try reading it again. I did hesitate before opening the cover, but it was time. 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 has been 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.
Reading about Robin again, I found the same 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 magical and enchanting, even without any wizards to be found in its pages (although there is one wise and unusual character who comes close).
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 just returned from a jaunt in 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 detailed autobiography on her site is delightful and gives a glimpse of her personality:
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...
I’m very glad I found there is still magic in her words and in the Velvet Room.
Please follow the link below to discover more about her as well:
Linda Borromeo enjoys reading children's books so much she decided to write one of her own. Mystery Shores is filled with lighthouses, animals, birds, a traveling library and secrets that young sleuths Christie and Melina must solve.