A couple days ago I blogged about favorite times and places for reading. I mentioned my fond memories of reading in the crawlspace at the top of my neighbors' garage. Blog reader Bybee talked about reading on the subway. I know someone else who has a window seat, just right for reading, at the top of their stairway, and another person with a hammock in their backyard.
Then there is twelve-year-old Robin, who discovers her special place by climbing down a ladder into the bottom of a well...then lighting a candle and inching through a dark tunnel...which ends at the foot of a stone staircase. Climbing those stairs, Robin finds herself inside a large, abandoned home. Except for an occasional dresser or bedframe, all the rooms are empty -- except one. And when Robin turns the doorknob, she steps "into the most wonderful surprise of her life."
A thick pale rug cushioned her bare feet as she moved forward and turned very slowly in a circle. The walls of the room were paneled in dark wood. All along one wall the bright bindings of books contrasted with the wood. The books went on and on, all down one side and across the far wall, on shelves that went almost to the ceiling: except in the center of the wall, where there was a large fireplace with a marble mantel. On the opposite side of the room were four tall narrow windows. Above the windows were arches of colored glass. Sunlight, streaming in through the arches made rainbows on the rug.
The room was full of things, beautiful old things. There were chairs, tables, lamps, a tiny sofa, and a huge square desk with a leather top. At the far end of the room a wide doorway led to a circular alcove.
It was there in the alcove that she first began to call it the Velvet Room. There were heavy drapes of dark velvet at the windows, and the wide doorway that led into the rest of the library had drapes, too. When all the drapes were closed, there was a full circle of velvet. Robin pulled all the drapes shut, and then sat down and looked around.
It was a wonderful, cozy place. A lot of people must have sat there to read in all the years since Palmeras House had been built. There must have been other children who had liked the wide window seats with their deep soft pillows. They probably took their books there and pulled the drapes shut, just as Robin had, and felt safe and comfortable and hidden.
Set in 1937, Zilpha Keatley Snyder's THE VELVET ROOM tells the story of Robin, the middle child in a large migrant family, who finds her special place in the tower room library of an otherwise abandoned estate. On the bookshelves, Robin discovers an old diary that helps her unravel the mystery of the estate's long-missing heir.
Ms. Snyder actually began writing Robin's story when she was a teenager herself -- although she envisioned it as a novel for adults. Many years later, after writing her first children's book, SEASON OF PONIES, the author returned to this "adult novel" which she had abandoned -- midsentence! -- on page forty-five. Lopping a dozen years off her protagonist's age, she re-imagined the story as a children's book. THE VELVET ROOM was published in 1965 to positive reviews. Ms. Snyder then went on to write a variety of highly-regarded books, snagging three Newbery Honors (for THE EGYPT GAME in 1968, THE HEADLESS CUPID in 1972, and THE WITCHES OF WORM in 1974.) Some fans remember her best for her "Green Sky" fantasy trilogy. Others prefer her novels about the Stanley family. I'm a huge fan of her 1981 young adult novel A FABULOUS CREATURE.
But THE VELVET ROOM always stayed in the back of my mind and I've returned to it several times over the years. About a decade ago, I decided to track down a copy for my own collection. Imagine my surprise when I discovered there were almost no copies available. A first edition was $600! An "ex-lib" (i.e. old library copy) hardcover was $300. Even worn "school book club" paperback editions were selling for $30-$40.
It turned out that I was not the only one with fond memories of THE VELVET ROOM. Though out-of-print and generally forgotten by critics, the novel had quietly become one of those "modern classics" that are loved by a small group of readers but pretty much unknown to the general public.
Fortunately, things have changed over the last ten years. THE VELVET ROOM is now back in print -- available from the "print by demand" company iUniverse for less than $15. This has freed-up some of the older, used copies of the book, which can now be found in paperback at very reasonable prices...though a good first edition will still cost around $500. I'm saving up for one of those.
Nearly eighty people have left "customer reviews" for THE VELVET ROOM on Amazon.com and there is one common thread that runs through them:
* I think all introverted, bookish youngsters like myself long for a secret place to get away from their family and others who do not understand them.
* I could relate to the girl and her need to escape to the velvet room to read.
* When I was a young girl in an unhappy family with no escape and no hope, I stumbled on this book. It expressed so many of my thoughts and feelings at that period in my life. It also gave me hope that someday I too would write books that gave others the feeling that they were not alone in their misery. And gave me hope that someday I would find my velvet room.
* I related to the main character since I was a member of large family that struggled somewhat to make ends meet. This book validated the feelings I had, needs for privacy, comfort, and an outlet for the imagination.
* Maybe it was because the heroine in the book had a secret place of her own, something as the middle child among five siblings my world definitely lacked.
* I could taste the apricots, I could feel the warmth of the velvet, I could totally understand her need to be alone (I'm the youngest of six) and I wanted a velvet room more than anything.
So many readers cite THE VELVET ROOM as their favorite childhood book. They remark on its lingering power. And express their childhood desire to have a "velvet room" of their own.
Nowadays, though, that "solitary" room is apt to be packed with fellow fans of this outstanding and much-loved novel.
THE VELVET ROOM written by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and illustrated by Alton Raible. Published by Atheneum in 1965.
Why the book is collectable: It's a well-remembered novel that became a modern classic because readers felt a deep personal connection to the book.
How to identify a first edition: The copyright page must state “First Edition.” The price on the dustjacket (pictured above) is $3.95. The cloth binding is light green and features a vignette of an old-fashioned key on the front panel.
Difficulty in finding first editions: Long out-of-print and impossible to find just ten years ago, new copies are now available in print-by-demand format. Older paperbacks can currently be found for under $5, but if you want a first edition, expect to shell out about $500 for this highly-collectable title.