The Headless Cupid

HeadlessCupidThe Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, 1971.

This is the first book in the Stanley Family Mysteries series.  Some people might be put off by the occult themes in this book, but this is a mystery story, and all is not what it seems.  Read to the end to find out.

Eleven-year-old David Stanley has had to help take care of his younger siblings since his mother’s death.  In some ways, he feels like his mother knew that she was dying before anyone else did, preparing David to help his father by taking care of his younger sister Janie and the young twins, Esther and Blair.  David thinks that his mother might have been psychic because she tended to believe in some odd things and often knew things before other people did.

Now David’s father, a college professor, has remarried, to a divorced woman with a daughter of her own, Amanda, who is twelve years old.  David likes his new stepmother, Molly, who is an artist, and he appreciates having someone else to help take care of the other kids.  Amanda is a different story.  She was an only child before her mother’s remarriage, and she’s not happy to suddenly have step-siblings, some of whom are rather young.  Amanda has been unhappy in general since her parents’ divorce, and she wishes that she could go to live with her father full time. Her father says that he can’t take care of her because he has to work so much, but he spoils her whenever they spend time together.  David has doubts about the things Amanda says about her father, but he and the others try to make her welcome in their new home.

HeadlessCupidNewsWith their family suddenly much larger, David’s father bought a new house for them to live in.  Actually, it’s a very old house just outside of a small town that people call the Westerly house after the former owners.  Not long after they move in, they find out that people used to say that the Westerly house was haunted.  Mr. and Mrs. Westerly used to travel around the world with their two daughters because Mr. Westerly worked for the government, but after they settled down to a quieter life in this small town in the late 1800s, strange things started happening in their house.  Rocks would fly around the house, seemingly thrown by invisible hands, and someone (or something) cut the head off of the carved cupid on the fancy staircase banister.  The head was never found.  These incidents were reported in the local paper, and people believed that the Westerly family was haunted by a poltergeist.  These hauntings seemed to center around the two girls, particularly the older one, Harriette, which made some people think that they were faking it.  However, they were never able to catch either of the girls doing anything.  The strange activities finally ended when the girls were sent away to boarding school, but now that the Stanleys have moved into the house, strange things are starting to happen again.

HeadlessCupidAmandaAmanda is fascinated by stories of the poltergeist.  A friend of hers where she used to live (one her mother didn’t approve of) was teaching her about the occult and how to do magic spells.  When David tells Amanda that he thought that his mother was psychic, Amanda is surprised, and she offers to teach David and the other kids about magic over the summer.  David eagerly accepts the offer because he finds the subject fascinating and because it’s the only thing that Amanda really seems interested in.  The other kids are also fascinated at the idea, even the littlest ones, which takes Amanda by surprise.  She had expected them to be scared.

Still, Amanda begins leading the kids through a series of rituals that will supposedly initiate them into the occult world, all of which have to be done in secrecy, without the parents’ knowledge.  They have to do some bizarre things like spend an entire day not talking (they have to take turns so the adults won’t notice, and it’s harder for some kids than others), spend a day where they can’t touch anything metal (mealtimes are awkward), offer “sacrifices” to the spirits, and find animals to be their “familiars.”  As some of these rituals and the kids’ strange, secretive behavior cause problems, particularly for David’s stepmother, David begins to suspect that Amanda’s “rituals” have an ulterior motive that has nothing to do with magic at all.  Then, the poltergeist activity begins.

HeadlessCupidKidsJust as with the Westerly family years ago, rocks are thrown around the house or found just laying around.  Things are broken in the middle of the night.  Have Amanda’s rituals somehow awoken the poltergeist once more?  David has his doubts, suspecting that it’s part of Amanda’s playacting, but she is accounted for when some of these strange things happen.  The younger kids are still more fascinated than frightened by these strange happenings, but their stepmother finds them particularly unnerving.

Then, just when David thinks that he understands the situation and Amanda seems to be calming down her occult talk and behaving more normally, something happens which is really inexplicable: the missing head of the cupid suddenly reappears.

That Amanda is faking at least part of the haunting is pretty obvious even early on, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that.  Amanda is an unhappy girl whose life abruptly changed with her mother’s remarriage, and her occult talk and fake witchcraft is part of her way of dealing with her feelings.  She admits to David at the end of the story that she was purposely trying to frighten her mother, trying to “get even” with her for turning her life upside down, first by divorcing her father and then by getting married again, forcing Amanda to move to a strange town where she has no friends and live with a bunch of kids she hardly knows.  Getting to know her new siblings better and sharing adventures with them helps, but it takes the frightening moment when the cupid’s head suddenly reappears to get Amanda to admit that real occult stuff scares her too and to confess the truth of what she did and her real feelings to her mother.

HeadlessCupidDavidAmandaThere are some elements of the happenings, particularly the reappearance of the cupid’s head, that are never fully explained, although David ends up knowing more than Amanda by the end.  Some aspects of it are hinted at.  There may be a real supernatural event at the end of the story.  Blair appears to have inherited psychic abilities from his mother, and there is a distinct possibility that the Westerly sisters who once lived in the house were just as unhappy with their parents for the changes in their lives as Amanda was with her mother.  Although the “poltergeist” as it first appears doesn’t exist, it may be that the “poltergeist” of the past remembers what it was like to be young and unhappy and wanted to make amends for past wrongs and to help another troubled young girl to make peace with her life and family.  But, if you don’t like that explanation, there is a more conventional explanation that is equally possible.  Personally, I think it’s a combination of the two, but it’s not completely clear.

As a kid, I enjoyed the creepy aspects of the story and the sense of wonder the kids experience as they go through their “rituals,” trying to bring some magic to their regular lives, wondering if things like ghosts and magic can really exist.  Now, I more appreciate how Amanda researched tricks used by fake psychics and mediums and used them creatively to her advantage.  I also like the way David sensed the truth behind Amanda and the strange happenings even though he didn’t really understand how or why it was done at first.  David has some genuine curiosity about magic, but even after he realized that Amanda was faking things and was disappointed by it, he didn’t immediately tell the others.  He could have unmasked her as a fraud, but he knew that would only earn her resentment.  He wanted to understand her motives and help her feel better, giving her the chance to make peace with her mother herself.

This book has been frequently challenged because of the children’s inquiries into the occult, but I would like to point out that their “occult” experiments were all fake, pretty obviously so, and it is acknowledged that Amanda’s interest in the occult was fueled by her emotional distress (part of her urge to “get even” with her mother by causing problems).  By the end, Amanda has admitted her true feelings and made peace with her mother, and she also says that her mother has explained some things that Amanda didn’t know before.  Some of Amanda’s resentment toward her mother was fueled by things that her father had told her, and Amanda also realizes that some of the nasty things that her father told her about her mother may not have been true.  In the end, she realizes that her resentment toward her mother for causing the divorce was needless.  Much of the story involves unresolved feelings and the need to communicate them honestly.

The difference between reality and perceptions is also important to the story.  Although Amanda at first tries to convince the other kids that she is an expert on all things magic, David soon realizes that she’s not (she acts like ordinary, easily-identifiable wild flowers are rare herbs and can’t control her “familiar” because she has no idea how to handle animals), and when things happen that Amanda can’t explain, she’s the first to be terrified.  In the end, Amanda gives up on the idea of the occult completely, realizing that the things she did were wrong and that she had gotten involved in something that she really didn’t want to be involved in.  Many kids wonder about the supernatural when they’re young, and I don’t think it’s bad to point out to them that they if they experiment with such things, they may be getting involved in something they could regret and that they should consider their motives for wanting to do so.

This is a Newbery Honor Book.


Midnight Magic

midnightmagicMidnight Magic by Avi, 1999.

The story takes place in Italy, toward the end of the Middle Ages.  Mangus, a formerly wealthy scholar and philosopher, is living under house arrest because the king believes that he has practiced black magic. Mangus was merely performing magic tricks to earn extra money, and in fact, does not believe in real magic.  However, the king is very superstitious and easily influenced by his scheming advisor, Count Scarazoni, who needed a scapegoat to distract everyone from his schemes.  Unfortunately, many people in the kingdom of Pergamontio believe that Mangus is a real magician with frightful powers.  Even Fabrizio, an orphan who is Mangus’s only remaining servant, believes that magic really exists.

When a messenger arrives, summoning Mangus to the castle to see the king, they are afraid that the king has reconsidered his decision to spare Mangus’s life. However, it turns out that the king is in need of Mangus’s help. He believes that his young daughter, Princess Teresina, is being tormented by a ghost, and he wants Mangus to use his magic to get rid of it.

Mangus again protests that he does not do real magic, but both the king and Count Scarazoni promise dire consequences if he fails to help them deal with the problem.  Mangus isn’t sure why Count Scarazoni has asked for his help because he knows that the count doesn’t really believe in magic, except perhaps as a way of appeasing the king.  The king promises that if Mangus can free the princess from the influence of the ghost, he will not only end Mangus’s house arrest but reward him with a generous pension.  Mangus has little choice but to agree to do his best, and the promise of the pension for his master convinces Fabrizio to do everything he can to make sure that Mangus succeeds, not only save his master’s life but to restore his family’s fortunes.

But, what is the secret of the ghost?  Fabrizio believes in ghosts, even though Mangus doesn’t.  Princess Teresina insists that the ghost is real, appealing directly to Fabrizio to convince Mangus that it is. Adding to the mystery is the disappearance of the princess’s brother, Prince Lorenzo, and the murder of the princess’s tutor. Danger lurks in the castle, and conspiracies are around every corner. Could the troubled spirit really belong to the murdered prince?

One of the best things about the story is that, as soon as you think you know what’s going on, you learn that there is more to the story. There are conspiracies within conspiracies!

Scary, Scary Halloween


Scary, Scary Halloween by Eve Bunting, pictures by Jan Brett, 1986.

I love the pictures in this book and enjoy the rhyming text of the story.  It’s a cute concept for Halloween, and young children will enjoy the repetition in the story.


One Halloween night, unseen watchers observe children in costume trick-or-treating.  The mother cautions her children to remain hidden because of all the strange creatures that are out and about on Halloween.


Readers will know that the monsters are simply children in costume, but the watchers do not because they are cats, which is only revealed at the end of the story.  Throughout most of the book, they only appear as green eyes as they hide under the porch of a house.


When all the trick-or-treaters are gone, the mother cat and her kittens are free to roam the night themselves.


I thought that it was cute how the mysterious tone of the book was due to the cats’ understanding of Halloween.  At first, it may seem very mysterious to young children as well, but completely understandable as it becomes more and more obvious that all the monsters are only trick-or-treaters and the little family hiding from them are cats, who think of themselves as being pretty fierce in their own right.

Jenny, the Halloween Spy


Jenny, the Halloween Spy by Lillie Patterson, 1979.

JennySpyWitchOne Halloween, Jenny goes to visit Nancy, a woman who local people say is a witch.  Jenny is curious about magic and, knowing that there are magical creatures abroad on Halloween, she wonders if she might see something unusual at Nancy’s house.

As she arrives at the house, Jenny peeks inside before announcing herself and sees Nancy putting some kind of oil in her eyes.  After Nancy welcomes her inside and offers her some cider, Jenny sneaks a little of this oil and puts it in one of her eyes to see what it does.  She discovers that the oil allows her to see magical beings that are hidden to most people.  There are fairies in Nancy’s house and rich furnishings that appear very ordinary to Jenny’s unaffected eye.

Using her new ability to see magical creatures, Jenny goes to the town market to see what is going on there.  However, when she catches a pixie stealing some fruit, the fairies and other “wee folk” decide to put an eye to Jenny’s spying on their activities.  With some magic dust, the pixie removes her ability to see magical creatures and tricks her into getting onto an enchanted horse that takes her on a wild ride ending in a view of the devil.

JennySpyFairiesThis is a kind of cautionary story about the dangers of curiosity.  Jenny’s curiosity invites the attention of dangerous creatures and leads her into a frightening situation, something that she never wants to repeat.  For the most part, I think that curiosity is a trait that should be encouraged, but Jenny did deliberately seek out a person with a dangerous reputation and pry into the things she was doing, even trying some herself because she wanted to know more about it, so she could be considered to have gone looking for trouble.

The end part about seeing the devil (accompanied by headless hounds) is a little bizarre but in keeping with folklore about Halloween and witches. The pictures are colorful and fascinating, but this book may be frightening for very young children.  Some of the fairies remind me a little of the pictures that inspired the Cottingley Fairy hoax.

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything


The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams, 1986.

“Once upon a time, there was a little old lady who was not afraid of anything!”

This is a cute picture book based on word and sound repetition.

A brave lady ventures out into the woods one day, and as she makes her way home again when it gets dark, she begins to encounter some strange things.


First, a pair of shoes with no one in them begin to follow her.  Then, she meets a part of pants with no one in them, and a shirt joins the parade of  clothes.  But, as weird as it is, nothing frightens the lady, not even the addition of a living jack o’lantern.



When everything fails to frighten the woman (although she does look a little scared at one point), she has to help this strange collection of living clothes and pumpkin head to find a new purpose for themselves.


What’s a Ghost Going to Do?


What’s a Ghost Going to Do? by Jane Thayer, 1966.

Gus is a friendly ghost who lives a quiet life alone in his old house, which is run-down and shabby, with winter visits from his mouse friend.  However, Gus discovers one day that the property is being sold.  The government wants the land to turn into a park, and if that happens, Gus’s house will be torn down!  If they decide to tear the house down, where will he go?


For a time, Gus tries living with another ghost in another old house nearby, but that arrangement doesn’t work because the other ghost doesn’t like Gus rattling chains.  Then, Gus tries living in a hole with his mouse friend, but it’s really too small for him.  The only place that seems right for Gus is his old house, which is in danger of being destroyed!


In desperation, Gus whispers in the ears of the man in charge of preparing the park for the government, Mr. McGovern, trying to get him to notice the virtues of his house.  Fortunately, Mr. McGovern accepts Gus’s vision of the house as a beautiful piece of the past and finds a way to restore it to its former glory so that Gus can keep his home and others can appreciate it, too.


Gus’s house becomes a museum in the park, and Mr. McGovern also officially acknowledges Gus as the resident ghost.


Old Black Witch


Old Black Witch by Wende and Harry Devlin, 1963.

OldWitchChimneyA boy, Nicky, and his mother are looking for a new place to live somewhere in New England.  The mother wants to buy an old cottage with the idea of turning it into a tea room.  At first, they have trouble finding a place, but finally they buy an old house that badly needs fixing up, not knowing that there is an old witch living there.

The witch (whom they call Old Black Witch, since she’s dressed all in black and sooty and doesn’t seem to have any other name) has been sleeping in the chimney of the house for about a hundred years, and they wake her the first time they try to start a fire in the fireplace.  The witch is furious to discover that the house has new owners and worried about where she’s going to live because she needs an old house to haunt.  Nicky and his mother invite her to stay and live in the attic, which has enough dust and cobwebs to satisfy her tastes while they clean up the lower part of the house for the tearoom.

The locals have heard stories about the house being haunted, but the nice tearoom soon becomes popular with ladies in the area, especially after Old Black Witch decides to help out Nicky’s mother in the kitchen.  Old Black Witch’s blueberry pancakes are wonderful and win many fans for the tearoom.

Then, one night, a couple of burglars break in.  Since Old Black Witch is kind of evil herself, she can’t really fault them for wanting to rob the place . . . until she suddenly realizes that they’re stealing from her, too, and uses her magic to fix the burglars for good and give herself the pet toads that she’s been wanting.


One of the things that I like about this story, which was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, is that Old Black Witch isn’t particularly evil although she isn’t too nice, either.  She’s as bad and disagreeable as a cranky old witch who’s lived in a chimney for over 100 years ought to be, but not so bad that she can’t make some new friends and help them out once in awhile.  Friendly enough for the kids, but not too sweet to be a real witch.  It’s part of a short series, although I haven’t managed to find any of the other books yet.  Some of the pictures are in full color and some are in black and white.  Don’t ask me why she has a spoon in her hat because I’ve never been completely sure, either.  Somehow, on her, it looks good.

The back cover of the book has the recipe for the blueberry pancakes.


There was a short film version of this story from 1969 called Winter of the Witch.  It follows the book fairly well, but with some variations (there were no burlgars).  In the film, the pancakes have the power to make people happy, and that’s what gives Nicky’s mother the inspiration to open a pancake parlor in their house.  The witch finds a new sense of purpose, although she still plans on going back to her old, wicked ways once the world is happy enough to need a good, old-fashioned scare.  I don’t think that it was ever released on dvd, but it is possible to see it on YouTube.

Which Witch is Which


Which Witch is Which by Pat Hutchins, 1989.

This is a cute picture book/puzzle book.  A pair of twins, Ella and Emily, are invited to a friend’s costume party, but they come dressed as witches in identical (or nearly identical) costumes.  Throughout the party, as the girls play party games, eat the party snacks, and give presents to their host, readers are invited to figure out which twin is which.


The main clue to the girls’ identities is that Ella’s favorite color is pink while Emily prefers the color blue.  Things that the girls have in those colors or objects that they select give away their identities


However, there are also other hints, like we are told what each of the girls ate at the party so that we can use the crumbs left on their plates (or the lack of crumbs) to determine which witch is which.


The text of the book rhymes.  The illustrations are cute, and it’s a good book for teaching children how to notice details.


Felicity Saves the Day

American Girls


Felicity Saves the Day by Valerie Tripp, 1992.

This is part of the Felicity, An American Girl series.

FelicitySummerPlantationFelicity’s grandfather is a wealthy man who owns the Kings Cross Plantation.  Every summer, Felicity and her family go to visit him there, and Felicity loves it.  Her grandfather teaches her a lot of things, like which plants can be used for food and medicine, and takes her for horse rides around his estate.

This year, while Felicity’s father and his apprentice Ben are minding the store at home,  Felicity has a special surprise.  As her grandfather inspects a group of horses that a friend wants to sell him, Felicity is stunned to recognize Penny, the horse she freed from an abusive owner in the first book of the series.  Penny is a little thin and dirty but otherwise well, to Felicity’s relief!  Her grandfather purchases Penny for Felicity and promises to keep her safely at his plantation so that Felicity can visit her and ride her regularly.

Felicity is happier than she’s been in a long time and writes an enthusiastic letter home to tell her father and Ben, but soon, she learns that Ben is not at home with her father.  Felicity and her siblings have set up a bird bottle, a special bottle that acts like a bird house for birds to nest in, and she checks it daily to see if there are any birds to show to her little brother.  One day, she finds a message in the bottle from Ben, pleading for help, along with a map to a place in the woods and Ben’s whistle.  When Felicity goes to the spot in the woods and blows the whistle, Ben comes out of hiding.

FelicitySummerBountyHuntersBen tells Felicity that he ran away from his apprenticeship to join the revolutionary army.  He wants badly to fight for the colonies’ freedom from England, but he had a bad fall while traveling and hurt his leg.  Felicity tries to convince Ben to let her get help for him and to return to her father to finish his apprenticeship, but Ben doesn’t want Felicity’s grandfather to find out that he’s there or why he ran away because he knows that he disapproves of the revolutionaries.  Because Ben kept her secret when she used to sneak out to see Penny, Felicity reluctantly agrees to keep Ben’s presence a secret for awhile, sneaking him some food and supplies.  She tells Ben that, while she thinks that standing up for what he believes is good, he’s going about it in the wrong way because breaking his apprenticeship was dishonest.

Then, Felicity learns that her father has placed an advertisement in the newspaper with a reward for anyone who can find Ben, and some rough-looking bounty hunters show up at the plantation to inquire about it.  Felicity knows that she must try to convince Ben to return on his own before he gets hurt worse than he already has!

A large part of the Felicity books is about taking responsibility and whether or not it’s right to break rules in the name of a good cause.  Felicity herself broke the rules to befriend Penny and later free her from a master who would probably have killed her.  This story raises the question of whether Ben’s form of rule-breaking is similar to what Felicity did or not.  Their situations and the reasons for their rule-breaking are different.  In her situation, Felicity had tried to behave as lawfully as she could until it became apparent that the only way to save Penny’s life was through rule-breaking.  In Ben’s situation, although he wants to help what he sees as a good cause, his rule-breaking isn’t strictly necessary, and he never tried to discuss his feelings with Felicity’s father and to work out an arrangement before running away because he thought that he already knew what Mr. Merriman would say.  Felicity points these things out to Ben, along with the fact that Ben is not in any real position to help the cause that he supports because he is injured, wanted, and in hiding.  He started on this venture ill-prepared and inconsiderate of the other people who depend on him back home and his own future, and while his belief in the revolutionary cause is genuine, he is also afraid of admitting his mistakes and needs to be urged to make things right.

In the back of the book, there is a section that talks about what people in Colonial America would do during summertime.  The weather in Virginia is hot and humid during the summer, and not everyone would get a chance to travel to the countryside, like Felicity’s family did.  The book talks about various ways colonists would use to cope with heat (keeping the kitchen with its fire separate from the house, eating in an open breezeway in the house, wearing lighter clothes, boys would go swimming although girls didn’t, etc.).  It also talks about life on Virginia plantations, including slavery.

Felicity Learns a Lesson

American Girls


Felicity Learns a Lesson by Valerie Tripp, 1991.

FelicityLessonGirlsThis is the second book in the Felicity, An American Girl series.

So far, Felicity has mainly been taught at home, learning to read and write and take care of basic household tasks, like cooking and sewing, from her mother.  However, Felicity’s parents have decided that it’s time for her to begin furthering her education.  Felicity fantasizes about studying Greek, Latin, and geography, like boys do in college, but girls of her time do not receive that kind of education.  Some girls take on apprenticeships, learning professions such as seamstress, which Felicity thinks might be exciting, but her father is a wealthy merchant, which means that Felicity will be educated as a gentlewoman, not as a girl preparing herself for a trade.  A gentlewoman’s education involves lessons in penmanship, fine stitchery, dancing, manners, and hostess skills.  Felicity doesn’t find that prospect as exciting.

Felicity starts taking lessons from Miss Manderly, a respected gentlewoman, in manners and the practical arts that girls from well-off families of her era were expected to know. Two other girls, a pair of sisters who have recently arrived from England, are also taking lessons from Miss Manderly, and at first, Felicity worries that they will know more than she does.  However, they are also young and have lessons of their own to learn.  The younger of the sisters, Elizabeth, becomes Felicity’s best friend.  However, Annabelle, the older girl, is disapproving.  She misses her old life in England and doesn’t think that anything in the colonies is good.

FelicityLessonAnnabelleThen, Felicity’s father declares that because of the tax on tea, he will no longer carry it in his shop. It leaves Felicity feeling conflicted about Miss Manderly’s lessons, which include the proper way to serve tea. She has started enjoying the lessons and doesn’t want to lose Elizabeth’s friendship, but she wants to support her father, too. Then, Annabelle criticizes Felicity for what her father said at one of the lessons, prompting Felicity to storm out angrily. She is doubly angry and hurt that Elizabeth didn’t try to defend her, making her doubt Elizabeth’s friendship.

At first, Felicity thinks that there is no way she can return to the lessons, but her mother convinces her that if there’s something that she really cares about (the lessons, Elizabeth’s friendship, supporting her father, etc.) she will find a way to work through the conflict rather than give up on it.  She also points out that some people aren’t as brave as others and find it more difficult to speak their minds and that Felicity should give Elizabeth another chance at friendship.  In the end, Felicity works out a compromise for her lessons using what Miss Manderly has already taught her, and Elizabeth finally finds the courage to tell Annabelle how she really feels about her behavior and the way she treats both herself and Felicity.

Each of the girls in the American Girls stories has her own personality, including strengths and weaknesses. Felicity is a spirited girl, but at first, she has a tendency to be too impatient and impulsive. Part of what she learns is the need take responsibility for her choices and to think things through before she acts.  Elizabeth, who is shy and easily intimidated by her older sister, learns that nothing will improve until she makes her true feelings known and that she has as much right as anyone else to be treated with respect.  Annabelle is a rather self-centered individual and is genuinely surprised when Elizabeth finally stands up to her.  In some ways, Annabelle is unfortunate because she does not find a friend at Miss Manderly’s like her sister does, but readers will recognize that Annabelle’s lack of friends is partly her own fault because she is deliberately antagonistic and does not try to earn Felicity’s friendship.

In the back of the book, there is a section that explains more about how children were educated in the American colonies around the time of the Revolutionary War.  Other good books on this topic are Going to School in 1776 and Colonial Crafts.