Books Young Adult (YA) Literature

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

"I'm going to test you for supernatural aptitude. I'm going to find out if any of you have any natural psychic talents."

Myra here.

Narrative Style. This is one book that I simply enjoyed reading. I recall that I would often catch myself laughing out loud as I read some of the parts – that’s how good it is. The very first Snyder book I read was Egypt Game and from then on, I was hooked. I have around five of her books now. All Snyder’s books are easy and swift reading, I get to finish most of them in two to three nights, tops.

Snyder has a way of making children come alive – she could actually be a child psychologist, since she GETS kids: their language as evidenced in the way they speak to each other, their emotions, their concerns, and the way they could make you laugh with their candor and serious-yet-borderline-silly questions without their meaning to – which is precisely what makes the story a laugh-aloud experience. Yet there is also enough of the child-like grown-up in the storyteller who is looking into children’s affairs to make the narrative whimsical, poignant, and magical. Snyder successfully makes you nostalgic about what you are like when you were ten or twelve – she gets to take you back to that time. It is this interweaving of the childlike reminiscences of the adult and the sensitivity to what the child is like now at present that makes Snyder distinct from other children’s writers such as, say Louis Sachar, also a Newberry honor writer, famous for novels such as Sideways Stories from Wayside School and Someday Angeline where the simplistic writing makes you take the perspective of the child, rather than the adult recapturing what it’s like to be a child again.

I thought of coming up with illustrations of the ‘laugh-aloud experience’ as I noted above, but it would totally take the scene out of context. In addition to the fact that you would have to meet the four adorable Stanley children yourself for you to fall in love with them.

On Blended Families, Heartaches, and Acting Out
Over and above the mystery surrounding the haunted house (precisely what an eight or nine year old is searching for in a book), the legend about the headless cupid in the banister of their old haunted house, and the spells and incantations that the occult-loving Amanda is trying to learn – is a story about a sad, confused, displaced twelve year old who has to deal with four new step-siblings, a stranger for a step-dad, an artist for a mother, an entirely new home and a new school, and a father whom she gets to visit on schedule (and who happens to spoil her as well, to make up for the fact that they dont get to see each other often – which naturally makes things even worse for Amanda and her mother who then is perceived as the ‘bad cop’). No wonder, she’d rather be a witch. If I were in her position, I would also have a black crow for a pet, call it Rolor, drab myself in black, and stare at the entire world with a dour, bored, I-have-seen-it-all gaze to shift the focus away from my heart and home that’s been torn to pieces. To get a clearer picture of how much Amanda ‘hates’ her mom, this is how she explains it to David:

“She divorced him, and then when I was almost getting used to living with Mom in our apartment and had a friend and everything, then she goes and marries your father, who’s practically poor and has a whole bunch of kids for her to take care of that aren’t even hers, and we have to move out here to the country where I can’t see Leah anymore, and I’ll have to go to some crummy old country school where there won’t be anybody who’s anything like me, and everybody will hate me.”
Pages 45-46

This is a perfect book for my potential counselees or gifted young kids who are going through a major transition in their homelife and family structure – I am more than certain that they would be able to identify with the two opposing facets in the continuum being portrayed by Snyder in the book. On the one hand, there is Amanda who is having a hard time dealing with the changes in her family and makes her resentment keenly felt by her acting out and attempts to ‘shock’ the adults with her getting into deviant, other-worldly acts that puts her odd behaviors into the fringes of what is socially aceptable. Then there is the responsible 11 year old David who willingly takes care of his three younger siblings, takes the initiative to get to know Amanda (admittedly he is intrigued by her, I mean, who wouldnt be?), and has grown-up, long conversations with his father.

Then of course, there is the exploration of the question as to which of the two has it worse: David whose mother died and in the process he gained a quirky step mother and a strange older step sister; or Amanda whose parents are both alive yet decided that they could not stand to share the same life together any longer and who have simply stopped loving each other. Does it make it any easier to adapt to a blended household if you somehow felt that it wasnt so much a matter of choice, given that a parent died out on you anyway? Or would it be somehow more palatable that despite the fact that both your parents can not stand to be together any longer, they are still both breathing and living?

The Delectable Kiddielets
Ordinarily, I do not do character sketches of the main people in the novels I read, but this time I just couldn’t resist, since the children are just so endearing I could eat them all up. There is Janie, the six year old gifted younger sister of David, who has an extremely high IQ and “mature” for her age. Her powers of articulation are such that she wouldn’t literally shut up, and what puts a twist to her character is her theatrical flair and her overly-dramatic perception of things. She is also highly competitive in any type of game without her being too annoying or too much of a know-it-all. This is how Snyder describes her:

“Janie was very small for her age and doll-faced cute looking. She had dimples and roundish blue eyes and long curly eyelashes, along with some other characteristics that Amanda would be finding out before very long – like being a lot smarter and louder and more obnoxious than most six year olds.”
Pages 21-22

Then there are the four year old twins: Esther/Tesser (she pronounces her name as the latter) with the fat pink cheeks and Blair, the cherub. A description of Blair goes like this:

“It was hard for most people to keep from looking at Blair, particularly when he smiled. Blair was blond and blue-eyed like Janie, but with a different kind of face. Molly said that Blair had the kind of face you very seldom see on a real person. She said that she was going to stop trying to paint Blair’s picture because no matter what style she tried to paint him in, he always ended up looking like an angel on a Christmas card.”
Pages 22-23

What is even more extraordinary about Blair is the fact that he has a gift, he has the ‘sight’ – will talk more about this on the next section. It is also heartwarming to see how much the twins simply adore David and everything he does. And this comes as no surprise given how infinite David’s patience happens to be towards his younger siblings – which brings us now to a description of David. Also good-looking and quite the reader himself, David is the poster boy of The Good Son: highly responsible, extremely dependable and does not wait to be told what to do. Since his mother’s death, David has taken on greater responsibilities in caring for his younger siblings, and he does it freely, because he knows it is the right thing to do – not because it is asked or forced out of him.

Amanda, on the other hand, is a character, all right – seemingly cut out of a different mould. She is an embittered, angry 12 year old who makes it her life’s objective to make her mother as miserable as she is. Yet, despite this, it is simply beautiful how the Stanley children took to her peculiarities as simply fascinating, and her dark predisposition towards witchcraft and the occult as a source of magic and delight to the younger kids. She simply can do nothing wrong – which basically defeats her purpose. Even her black crow is appealing to the Stanley kids. Hence, the story evolves into Amanda’s redefining what she is through the eyes of the kids and eventually falling in love with her step-siblings despite her initial attempts to treat them as mere household pets for her amusement.

Snyder and the Supernatural
Prior to reading The Headless Cupid, I have already gone over Snyder’s The Witches of Worm and found it more disturbing than amusing – that book has a darker quality to it, in contrast to The Headless Cupid that is more entertaining and comical in essence (will write a review about that soon).

This book has it all: spiritual names, the presence of a familiar, trance-states, spiritual assessments to evaluate each of the children’s level of affinity with the supernatural, herb-hunting, ceremonial robes and clothing, palmistry, and initiation rites. It is the latter that makes the book such a hilarious read.
As David would eventually discover, much of the ‘rites of passage’ that Amanda has conceived for the Stanley kids to make them enter the world of the supernatural – are essentially meant to make her own mother miserable. Hence, the battle begins as to who would succeed more: Amanda in making her mother cry or David who is trying to keep the family peace and essentially protecting his stepmom Molly from her own daughter while going through the motions of following the supernatural tasks cooked up by Amanda.

First task was to not allow anything that is made of metal touch their skin – and this would last the entire day. Naturally, this poses a problem as to how the kids would eat, touch the faucets, help cook meals – among others. What complicates the scenario is that they are not allowed to tell their parents about what is going on. Hence, David had to concoct little scenarios and devise ingenious plans to follow through what is expected of them to the letter. Here is an excerpt of what happened during dinner time:

“Janie was eating her dinner, using her regular spoon and fork, only she was wearing a huge pair of very fuzzy rabbit fur mittens. Janie had gotten the mittens for Christmas, but she’d never worn them much because they were so thick and clumsy. Janie’s spoon looked as if it were sticking out of a huge ball of white fur, and her lips were pulled way back in a kind of snarl, so only her teeth would touch the metal spoon. Janie smiled brightly at Dad, making her eyes and dimples twinkle like the little girl in the toothpaste commercial on TV ‘My hands are cold, Daddy,’ she said in a cutesy voice. ‘my hands have been very cold all day. I must be catching something.’ She wrinkled up her nose and sneezed a very phony sneeze.”

The next task was for them to go to a ‘safari’ to find a reptile that would serve as their familiar. Amanda meant to scare the little ones out of their wits by touching toads, salamanders, and snakes. Little did she know that as children of an Assistant Professor of Geology, the Stanley kids LOVE reptiles. While she, the Master Initiator, happens to be the one deathly scared of the creatures that they bring inside the house with so much delight and excitement. And of course there is the final ceremonial rate where they are not allowed to wear white (not even their underpants as was clarified by Janie), and where they are asked to steal an article of clothing, as well as wear something that was once owned by a dead person. The ‘stealing’ part was made easier by David who thought of sneaking out the old unused socks by his father from his drawer as well as use some of the jewelry owned by their deceased mom. Of course the overall effect, once the Stanley kids have donned their ceremonial robes was more ridiculously funny than eerie or occult-like: with baggy sweatshirts, old dirty socks, and the children’s fuzzy bunny slippers.

The twist here is that while Amanda is decidedly conjuring up fake supernatural images and infusing tidbits of fact from the historical nature of the house that they are indeed living in (news has it that it really is haunted as was found on old newspaper clippings) – there is indeed something else going on in the house. And it was not Amanda who sensed it, but the four year old Blair who hardly speaks but sees everything.

End Notes
The story ends with Amanda discovering some lessons in love and learning hard truths about what family means. Despite the ruckus that she created towards the end, she got more than her comeuppance when what started out as her little prank turned into something that became way too big for her to handle – requiring parental intervention and the authentic supernatural powers of Blair, whom she initially dismissed as a mere kid with limited language skills. And there is also the realization that no matter how cruel a child can get, there is always space for acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption as found in the love within family.

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

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