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Zilpha Keatley Snyder dead; honored children's author was 87

Zilpha Keatley Snyder, the prizewinning author of "The Egypt Game" and dozens of other novels that led young readers into the wondrous terrain between fantasy and reality, died Oct. 7 at a retirement community in Greenbrae, California. She was 87.

The cause was a stroke, said her husband, Larry Snyder.

The author of more than 40 books, Snyder was a beloved figure to millions of youngsters and former youngsters, who discovered her stories anew by reading them to their own children. Widely praised, and occasionally controversial for its dalliances with the occult, her work was recognized three times with the Newbery Honor, a top prize in children's literature.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder displayed almost uncanny insight into the intellectual, emotional and imaginative lives of boys and girls, a perspective gained in part through her years as a schoolteacher.

"Teaching in the upper elementary grades had given me a deep appreciation of the gifts and graces that are specific to individuals with ten or eleven years of experience as human beings," she wrote in an autobiographical essay. "It is, I think, a magical time -- when so much has been learned, but not yet enough to entirely extinguish the magical reach and freedom of early childhood."

Her debut novel, "Season of Ponies" (1964), about a girl who embarks on a mystical friendship with a newfound companion and his horses, was inspired by a dream Snyder had when she was 12.

Several volumes later came "The Egypt Game" (1967), whose heroines occupy a vacant lot and resurrect the rites of ancient Egypt until a murder disrupts their make-believe. The story was Snyder's first Newbery Honor book.

Like many of her works, "The Egypt Game" drew from her girlhood and later life. In fifth grade, she recalled, she completed a project on the world of pyramids and hieroglyphs. Years later, her daughter devised an Egyptian game similar to the one in the story.

"There are tons of books about imaginary worlds," the essayist Noel Perrin once wrote in The Washington Post. "In nearly all cases the imaginary world is entered either by magic (you walk right into a painting, you climb a beanstalk, you drink a potion) or by science (you arrive in your starship). Either way, the world was already there . . . But in 'The Egypt Game,' the world is not a pre-existing one. It is created by its characters. Watching them do it is the very best part of the book."

Snyder's second Newbery Honor winner, "The Headless Cupid" (1971), marked the beginning of the Stanley Family series and explored matters including poltergeists and stepsiblings. "The Witches of Worm" (1972), Snyder's third Newbery Honor recipient, centers on Jessica, a melancholy child who, in thrall to a sinister kitten named Worm, worries that she may be a witch.

Like many authors, Snyder often was asked where she got her ideas.

"Children ask it poised on tiptoe, ready to run off and get some of their own," she wrote in the autobiographical essay, "and adults suspiciously, as if expecting one to either: 1) Admit to having personally experienced every event described in one's body of work, or 2) Own up to hereditary insanity.

"The only answer to the question," she continued, "is 'everywhere,' and without meaning to be facetious, because in any one book the idea roots are many and varied; some of them easily followed while others are fainter and more mysterious."

Zilpha May Keatley was born in Lemoore, California, the product of a marital union that she described as "a romance right out of Zane Grey -- the bachelor rancher meets the lonely schoolteacher." Her paternal grandmother was named Zilpha.

While accompanying her husband on his careers in the military and in music, she taught at schools in New York, Washington state, Alaska and California.

In addition to teaching and raising her children, Snyder pursued her writing, traipsing across genres. Her 1970s Green Sky trilogy embraced fantasy and was adapted into a popular video game.

Snyder wrote that she took great pleasure in traveling. Among the far-flung places she visited, in the 1980s, was Egypt -- "a destination," she recalled, "that had been high on my must-see list since I used to walk to school as Queen Nefertiti when I was 10 years old."

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