One book I picked up over and over again over the course of my childhood was The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. It’s not as well-known as Anne of Green Gables, but I loved it nearly as much.
The Velvet Room tells the story of Robin, the middle child of five. She and her family have been traveling all over California for the past three years in their old, beat-up Model T, looking for work. It’s 1937, and work prospects are not very good. Her family had run a dairy until the Great Depression and her father’s reoccurring pneumonia forced them to sell everything and live out of their car.
When we meet Robin, the Model T has just blown a tire and crashed into the stone gates of an estate. As her dad and older brother try to figure out what to do, Robin decides to explore, or “wander off,” as her family calls her habit of disappearing. She wanders down the overgrown lane, and finds a huge, beautiful old stone house, abandoned. The house instantly captures Robin’s imagination. She’s delighted to discover that her father has landed a job on the estate which belongs to the house, working in the mule shed.
The family moves into “The Village,” as the row of houses for the laborers is called. Robin befriends several people on the ranch, including Gwen, the owner’s daughter, and Bridget, Gwen’s old nurse. In the course of their friendship, Bridget loans Robin an mysterious, old Spanish-looking key. The key unlocks a secret passageway into the old stone house – and Robin finds a refuge of her own in the library, or the Velvet Room.
The Velvet Room explores the meaning of family and friendship, security and loneliness, money and relationships. Robin feels financial pressure, along with the fear of her father getting sick again. The Velvet Room is her refuge from her fears, insecurities – a place for her to dream of living in a house again, of people who lived in the house before her, of what life would be like to stay in one school for an entire school year.
After exciting adventures, uncovering a secret identity, and facing the real possibility of moving away from the Velvet Room for good, Robin’s life resolves to a happy ending which allows her to stay at the ranch, keep the friendships she’s forged over the months, and earn the praise of the ranch owners. Even though The Velvet Room deals with some weighty feelings and insecurities, the ending will leave readers feeling good.
The Velvet Room is a wonderful book to share with your children from upper-elementary school through high school.