NEW YORK — Zilpha Keatley Snyder, who mined memories of little demons at the foot of her childhood bed to spin tales of wonder, mystery, and suspense that beguiled two generations of children and young adults in nearly 50 books, died on Oct. 7 in San Francisco. She was 87.
The cause was complications of a stroke, said her publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Most of Ms. Snyder’s books were intended for readers 9 to 13 and delved into such subjects as witchcraft, murder, and dysfunctional families. She mixed realism and the supernatural, and her stories often had endings that could be interpreted from either viewpoint. Her plots were tight, and her protagonists were often vital, thoughtful, courageous females.
Her books almost always received excellent reviews. Referring to her 1967 book, “The Egypt Game,” Zena Sutherland wrote in The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, “It is strong in characterization, the dialogue is superb, the plot is original.”
“The Egypt Game” tells of two girls, April and Melanie, who turn a vacant lot into ancient Egypt for their fantasy games. But play turns nasty when a killer stalks April. It was named a Newbery Honor Book, as were two of Ms. Snyder’s other books.
Her second Newbery book, “The Headless Cupid” (1971), is the first of four novels about the Stanley family, which includes five stepbrothers and stepsisters who become involved in dangerous, often comical situations.
In her third, “The Witches of Worm” (1972), the heroine, Jessica, conjures a kitten named Worm, who says he is a witch’s cat and gives monstrous orders that Jessica obeys.
But who is really evil, the witch or the kitten? Only much later does Jessica realize that she must be the witch, just as the girls who accused the Salem witches were the guilty ones.
Ms. Snyder’s best-known books are probably the three that constitute the Green Sky Trilogy, published from 1975 to 1977, which depict an idyllic world shattered by the long-kept twin secrets of violence and an imprisoned people. The books explore ideas involving utopian culture, social engineering, and the control of violence.
Zilpha Keatley was born on May 11, 1927, in Lemoore, Calif. In an autobiographical essay, she told of some early experiences that shaped her psyche:
She had many pets and built leafy shelters for homeless insects. She slurped up her cereal as fast as possible because the bowl had a picture of Little Orphan Annie at the bottom, and she wanted to save Annie from drowning. The demons at the foot of her bed were waiting for her to carelessly straighten her legs.
She listened for hour upon hour to her father, William, tell stories about his youthful days as a bronco-busting cowboy. Her mother, born Dessa Jepson, was a schoolteacher who also told her stories. Zilpha learned to read at 4 and buried herself in books as she attended small country schools. She graduated from Whittier College in California with the idea of being a writer.
She taught school in the upper elementary grades for nine years before sending a manuscript to Atheneum Books. An editor there took the time to write her a two-page letter telling her what was wrong with the story. She rewrote it twice, and it was published under the title “Season of Ponies” in 1964.
“Season of Ponies” tells of a 10-year-old girl named Pamela who lives with her elderly aunts and is very lonely, until she meets a strange boy who becomes her secret playmate for an enchanted summer.
“An explanation of what actually happens is hinted in terms of dreams, sleepwalking, illness following exposure in a marsh, and Pam’s memories of her dead mother who had been a bareback circus rider,” Aileen Pippett wrote in The New York Times. “But this rationalization is less important than the poetic manner in which the tale is told.”
Ms. Snyder leaves her husband, Larry; her son, Douglas; her foster son, Benton Lee; and several grandchildren.
When asked why she wrote, Ms. Snyder said that writing fiction is “a lot like being in love.”
“The similarity lies in the tendency of people truly in love to see everything not only through their own eyes, but also through the eyes of the person they love,” she wrote. “As in, ‘What would he think of that?’ or “How would she feel about that?’ ”