I searched Kidliterate to find all of the other times I've reviewed Laurel Snyder's work here, and was horrified to find...none. I mentioned her awesome ANY WHICH WALL in my PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING WAIT FOR HARRY POTTER post, but other than that, no love for Laurel.
What is the matter with me??
Laurel Snyder writes like the child of Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Edward Eager, with a generous side of Judy Blume. Her books exist in worlds both real and unreal, and she is at her best when she is dabbling in a little magical realism. When I was nine or so, I would have wanted to live inside her books. I would have written her a letter about how much I loved her and I wouldn't have cared if I ever heard back. If her books had been published when I was nine, I probably would have read them in Dell Yearling editions, because she's a Random House novelist. They would have had the little horse on the top of the cover and that distinctive frame around the cover picture. I would have dog-eared them and read them over and over and never, ever loaned them to friends, because I didn't have a lot of money for books and I never wanted to risk losing them.
But I didn't have Laurel when I was nine, because Wikipedia tells me that when I was nine, Laurel was seven. So instead we were reading the same books around the same time, and we were growing up on the same coast and eating the same TastyKakes. And I grew up to be someone who puts books in the hands of kids, and Laurel grew up to be someone who writes the stories that fill some of those books.
Laurel's books sneak up on you. I don't think I realized how much I loved UP AND DOWN THE SCRATCHY MOUNTAINS (the story of Lucy the milkmaid, best friend of the prince, who's told she's "unsuitable" and goes up the mountains to find her vanished mother and her future) until I found myself talking about it almost every day in the bookstore. "Have I given you UP AND DOWN THE SCRATCHY MOUNTAINS?" I would ask young girl after young girl. If the answer was "no!" I would become appalled with myself. I WAS DEPRIVING A GIRL OF LUCY. With each subsequent handsell I found myself talking about it more and more. (Did I sell it to YOU? If not, I am sorry. I was depriving you of Lucy.)
In the summer I found myself frequently turning to the absolutely delightful ANY WHICH WALL, which is such a charming homage to Edward Eager that I find myself smiling just typing about it. The premise is simple: four bored kids find a magical wall in the middle of a cornfield; the wall transports them to other times and places. So simple. It would be so easy for a book with a plot this basically simple to be...trite. Derivative. Dull. But in Laurel's hands it turns into a perfect summer book, one that begs to be read aloud from the backseat as Mom or Dad or Adult Of Your Choice drives you down a long, long highway to the home of a relative or to a far-off campsite. I like to sell AWW with GONE-AWAY LAKE or THE SATURDAYS (assuming the reader has already plowed through Mr. Eager's books), because nothing's better than a little pile of books filled with the magic of summer, and I love selling new books alongside classic stories so that the reader can make the connections between the past and the present of storytelling. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't; either way, I find it delightful.
(I have to confess here that I have not actually read PENNY DREADFUL. I have been feeling guilty about this for about a year and a half. It is in my pile. I don't know what happened there.)
This month Laurel gave us BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX. I needed this book when I was nine. I wish I could go back in time and give it to myself. When I was nine, I knew things were not good in my house. They never got any better. And there weren't really any books about kids like me, kids with a little brother whose parents weren't doing well; whose families were splitting apart. My friends didn't seem to be going through the same thing, either. It was a pretty lonely time, and books that helped...well, they were few and far between.
In BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX, we meet 12 year old Rebecca. Rebecca's parents are going through a really bad patch, and her mom packs Rebecca and her brother Lew into the car and takes them from Baltimore to Atlanta to temporarily live with their grandmother. She gives Rebecca no warning about this, and suddenly, the whole world is different. But early in the trip Rebecca finds a mysterious bread box in the attic, and discovers that she can wish for anything she wants and as long as it fits in the bread box, it will appear. The wishing is amazing, but of course what Rebecca really wants can't fit in the box. She'll need to figure out other ways to cope with the changes in her world.
I wanted to hug this book, and I wanted it to hug nine-year-old me. And then I just became so, so glad that this book was in the world, and that kids who were like me back then have this kind of story to turn to. This book makes you feel like you're not alone in your suffering. I think it can help a kid make sense of their own broken world, and to see that families can break apart and still stay together in other ways. Family separation and divorce are things that are still hard to talk about, 28 years after my parents divorced. I think it's hard for kids to talk to their parents about things like this, and that makes books that deal with the subject even more important.
In the hands of another writer, this could have been a depressing, heavy-handed book. But Laurel comes along and sprinkles it with just enough magic and hope to keep it from being so, but not enough to make it sickly sweet or unrealistic. Rebecca feels so much like a real person to me, and because of that, I find making wishes and opening a bread box to find they've come true to be...believable. That's so hard. Magical realism is so hard to do right, but Laurel hits the right tone every time.
It's also so much harder to be a quiet writer than it is to be a loud one. I love the big, brassy, fantastical books that crowd the NYT bestseller list as much as the next girl, but the books that worm their way into my heart and stay there forever are always the quieter ones. The ones I know the author agonized over; the books that might have started as tiny seeds years ago and finally blossomed after long, long hours of work. The books that sneak up on me are the ones that stay with me the longest.
And more and more often, I find that they're by Laurel Snyder.