Thursday, February 18, 2016

Book Review: The Headless Cupid

(Retrieved from Blogjob, where it was tagged: children’s bookNewbery Honor booksstories about blended familiesstories about ghostsstories about poltergeistsstories about pranksZilpha Keatley Snyder.)

Title: The Headless Cupid
(If you click on the graphic, you may have to click through a link to the page for the Kindle edition to buy the actual book, but it's there.)
Author: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Date: 1971
Publisher: Atheneum
ISBN: 0-689-20687-9
Length: 203 pages
Illustrations: drawings by Alton Raible
Quote: “Amanda might give a person more to wonder about than the average stepsister.”
The person wondering about twelve-year-old Amanda is her eleven-year-old stepbrother David. What he’s wondering about is Amanda’s interest in the occult. Rather like Jennifer in Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, Amanda copes with her social insecurity by telling other kids she’s a witch...not what might now be described as an ordinary Wiccan, but the possessor of strange supernatural powers. Although Amanda doesn't even have the power to make a pet of the crow she keeps in a cage, her stepsiblings play along with her “tests” and “initiations” because they have nothing better to do.
So far, the main difference between Snyder’s and Konigsburg’s stories is that Amanda is the new stepsister, formerly an only child, in an existing family, while Jennifer was the only nonwhite student at a new school. Such novels for middle school readers were already a genre: everything would have a rational explanation after the “witch,” or perpetrator of the “ghost,” or whatever, felt secure enough to admit that s/he had only been playing games. (Or, as in Nancy Drew and “Scooby-Doo,” adult perpetrators were caught and admitted that the prank(s) had been a cover-up for a crime.)
The Headless Cupid gave this plot a twist. The newly blended family have moved into a new house that has a statue, a marble cupid, on the staircase. The head has come off the statue. The children imagine all sorts of possible ways this could happen, and think they may be finding evidence that the house has been haunted by a poltergeist who throws the head about.
Poltergeists, or mischievous spirits, definitely do exist. What has been debated is whether they exist outside the minds of the bored, frustrated, or insecure people, most often children, with whom they are always associated. When poltergeist phenomena are not clearly linked to one pre-teen with issues, e.g. Amanda, skeptical researchers can usually identify the other party most likely to be involved, e.g. David. (One of the world’s most formidable poltergeists, Tennessee’s legendary Bell Witch, may have been the product of three young adults with issues.)
Although successful when it was written, The Headless Cupid was controversial because some elements of the poltergeist story are not fully explained. Worried parents had to realize that there are still people who take occult ideas seriously. Some of these parents objected strenuously to The Headless Cupid, or Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, for that matter, even being considered for Newbery Medals.
What, exactly, does the novel tell us that Zilpha Keatley Snyder believed? Readers suspect another message underneath her cheerful, rational message of “Playing witch is something a troubled child might want to do, and a friend might be able to stop that child before s/he gets into real trouble, as it might be by ‘sacrificing’ a pet.” Is the additional message, “But playing witch, or playing psychic, just might attract the attention of a real unfriendly spirit”? (Funnily enough, that’s what the parents who wanted to ban this book claimed to believe.) Or is it “But playing along with a child ‘witch’ might lead the child’s friends into an interest in the occult, and might even encourage them to grow up to be the kind of people who believe that departed souls have anything to do with poltergeists”?
It is not necessary to agree with everything a writer says, or suggests, in order to enjoy the book. What made The Headless Cupid a Newbery Honor book is the skillful and credible description of how the stepsiblings begin to bond. However, I recommend that adults read the book first before giving it to a child. It's a cleverly layered fantasy, with Amanda’s witchcraft on one level, the possible poltergeist on another, and the claim that stepsiblings can become a family in just a few months on a third level.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder no longer needs a dollar. If you can find a better price than the $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online purchase that I have to charge for this book, feel free to buy it somewhere else; Newbery Honor books are usually in public libraries. However, if you buy it here, you pay only one $5 shipping charge for as many books as fit into one package, which might give you a better deal on this one plus Snyder's other books than the other sellers offer, after all.