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The Headless Cupid, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Updated on August 24, 2015

"The Headless Cupid" is the first of Snyder's books about the adventures of the Stanley family. In "The Headless Cupid," the Stanley family consists of David, age 11, Janie, age 7, the 4-year-old twins Esther and Blair, their father, their stepmother, and their stepsister, Amanda, age 12.

I have very fond memories of this book. One of my childhood friends read it too, back when I was in seventh or eighth grade. She was one of very few bookworm friends that I had during my childhood, but our tastes weren't entirely the same. As a result, I didn't often have the chance to talk to any of my friends about books like I do nowadays, thanks to the Internet.

At the book opens, the four Stanley children await the arrival of their new stepsister. They had only met her once, during the early days of their father's relationship with her mother (which makes me wonder how the wedding went -- did they elope, or did Amanda just not come to the wedding?), and David did not get an overall positive impression of her. He uses the term "upside-down smile" to describe the expression on her face.

When Amanda arrives, she is wearing a long black dress, old-fashioned shoes, and a red-and-purple shawl. She has her hair in a multitude of braids and has a reflective triangle fixed in the middle of her forehead. She explains to David that she is a witch and that this is her ceremonial costume. She also has a crow that she explains is her familiar.

The Stanley family is not without its peculiar aspects. The late Mrs. Stanley had some psychic ability, including a little bit of precognition, so when Amanda says that she is a witch, the kids are intrigued rather than frightened.

The Stanleys live in a large old house in the country. The house has an unusually ornate banister on the staircase, featuring vines and four large balls. Each ball is held aloft on the fingertips of two cupids (they may be cherubs, technically, or perhaps putti). One of the cupids is missing a head. David can tell that the head has been gone for a while, since the banister has been varnished since the loss of the head, and the top of the cupid's neck is varnished over.

In scenes that have made this book a feature of some banned books lists, Amanda offers to initiate the Stanley siblings into her coven. She requires them to have a ceremonial costume that includes something old, something from someone who is dead, and something stolen, and nothing in their outfit can be white. She doesn't understand the import, however, of the fact that she now lives in a house deep in the country, rather than in the city. The way that the Stanleys get through her requirements are ingenious, but Amanda is unimpressed.

She also sets a series of trials for them. Of course, the reader will see what is really going on -- Amanda is setting the kids up to get into trouble. But the kids manage to survive the trials and get initiated into the coven. Amanda also holds a séance, with interesting results.

Later, the son of the man who created the banister tells the Stanleys that the cupid's head was removed by a poltergeist. Soon afterwards, poltergeist activity begins in the Stanley household -- rocks appear from nowhere and objects break when no one is around.

This book asks many questions -- is Amanda a witch? Is there a poltergeist? However, the most important question is: Will Amanda ever truly become part of the family?


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