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Literature / The Stanley Family

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The Stanley Family series is a kids/YA series by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. The first book in the series, The Headless Cupid, was published in 1971 and is the also the best-known, winning a Newbery Honor Award for its author, while also having the dubious distinction of being a frequently challenged book due to its themes of witchcraft and the supernatural. The other three books were published in 1979, 1985, and 1989, respectively. The series overall is noteworthy for being a bit of a Genre Roulette, with the Stanley family being the only common thread between their very different adventures.

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The books are:

  • The Headless Cupid: When serious, gruff college professor dad Jeff marries flighty artist Molly, she comes with a stepsister in tow: Amanda, a surly would-be witch who recruits the young Stanley siblings into her coven. Elder brother David suspects that Amanda is really out for Relationship Sabotage, particularly when Amanda seems to have raised a poltergeist that throws the Stanley into chaos...except that the poltergeist might be real.
  • The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case: When Molly's uncle leaves her a substantial inheritance on the condition she must spend the money in Italy, the Stanley family is uprooted to the Italian countryside. Everything looks like it's going to be a long, happy holiday for the kids until big sister Amanda accidentally brags to the wrong person about the family fortunes (which don't exist) and the Stanley kids find themselves kidnapped and held for ransom. David and Amanda must convince the kids this isn't a game in order to plan an escape.
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  • Blair's Nightmare: The youngest Stanley, Blair, has been getting into trouble lately by raiding the fridge at night to feed his pretend dog. The family tolerates Blair's new imaginary friend until escaped convicts are spotted in the neighborhood, and suddenly Blair goes missing.
  • Janie's Private Eyes: Dogs are disappearing from town, and the newly arrived Tran family is unjustily suspected of dognapping. Janie sets out to clear the Trans' good name, dragging the rest of the Stanley kids along for the ride. But Janie's search for clues gets the kids into more and more trouble, and gradually leads them into serious danger when one of Janie's wild goose chases brings them face to face with real criminals.

The Stanley family consists of:

  • Jeff: Father to the Stanley kids and stepfather to Amanda. He's a college professor whose long work commute and occasional job commitments often conveniently remove him from the plot. With four kids, he's got a pretty low threshold for nonsense and tends to be the more stern, serious parent, a point he and Molly clash upon.
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  • Molly: Amanda's mother, and the stepmother of the other kids. She's an eccentric, laidback artist who encourages independence and creativity, a fact the kids frequently take advantage of. She's also prone to emotional meltdowns due to their shenanigans.
  • David: The oldest of the Stanley kids until Amanda arrives, he's a responsible, level-headed, often amused older brother who is the point-of-view character for the majority of the series. After his mother's death, he became the primary caregiver of his younger siblings and probably knows them better than either Molly or Jeff, to the point that he often uses their own psychology against them to maintain order. Age 11 in first book, 13 in the last.
  • Amanda: Newly added to the family in the first book, she's a moody, condescending, volatile teen with an extremely forceful personality. She's also a bit of a tomboy. Throughout the series, she remains a little aloof from her stepsiblings and never seems quite part of the family unit, although she and David eventually warm to one another and work together to solve domestic problems. Age 12 in first book, 14 in the last.
  • Janie: A brash, chatty, show-off with an IQ of 145 (a fact she'll bring up whenever possible), an inquisitive mind, a relentless personality, and a talent for snooping, she asks a battery of questions whenever something piques her interest and gives a battery of answers to questions no-one asked. Due to her intelligence, it's best to keep an eye on her and her reading material, as she'll concoct schemes from books then enlist the younger siblings to help her carry them out. Age 6 in the first book, 8 in the last.
  • Esther (a.k.a. Tesser): A sturdy, stubborn Tagalong Kid, Tesser is notable largely for the fact that she's not too bright, but also not too bothersome. If Tesser's in trouble, you can be sure it's because one of the other kids (i.e. Janie) talked her into it. Messes bother her, as do rules being broken or mealtimes/bedtimes being late. She's Blair's twin sister, though they look nothing alike. Age 4 in the first book, 6 in the last.
  • Blair: Blair's three main qualities are his quietness (he almost never speaks), his angelic beauty (golden curls and huge blue eyes), and his talent for knowing. It's left a little ambiguous if Blair has true Psychic Powers or if he's just a really good observer, but his premonitions constantly turn out to be correct, and he has an an almost eerie bond with all animals. He's Tesser's twin and like her, starts off at age 4 and ends at age 6.

The author herself said in a foreword that she considers Blair ("especially Blair") and Janie to be her favorite characters.


This series contains examples of:

  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: David is exasperated when Amanda develops a crush on Pete Garvey, the school bully who's been tormenting him all year.
  • Appropriated Appellation: Tesser is so named because as a baby, she couldn't pronounce her real name Esther. For a long time she refused to be called anything else, but by the time of the fourth book, she begins to refer to herself as Esther.
  • Bad "Bad Acting":
    • When the kids try to fake a miracle to scare guilt into their kidnappers, David cringes at his younger siblings' acting abilities.
    • In The Headless Cupid, the kids constantly worry about Janie's bad acting giving away their occult dabblings.
  • Big Friendly Dog: Nightmare turns out to be an Irish wolfhound who was bought as a guard dog by an abusive man who couldn't beat his sweet nature out of him.
  • Bound and Gagged: The kids turn the tables on their kidnapper and manage to get one of them in this position.
  • The Bully: Pete Garvey and his friends in Blair's Nightmare. Pete eventually improves.
  • Calling Parents by Their Name: The Stanley kids refer to Molly as "Molly," with David going so far as to note that calling Molly "mom" sounds weird since she's so easy-going and permissive that she feels more like a Molly.note  Molly doesn't mind.
    • Similarly, the Stanley kids call Jeff "Dad" but Amanda mostly refers to him as "Jeff".
  • The Cavalry: Happens in police form in Janie's Private Eyes.
  • Comic-Book Time: Nearly two decades separates the first book in the series from the fourth, but the dialog, pop culture references and character interests update to the time each book was written, while the kids only age up about two years from beginning to end.
  • Drama Queen: Janie loves being the center of attention and is prone to dramatic reenactments and overacting. David notes that the best way to determine Janie's really frightened or in trouble is when she goes stiff and quiet.
  • Earthy Barefoot Character: Molly, to the point that if she's wearing shoes, it's because something important's happening.
  • Engrish:
    • Used as a plot point in the second book, where Amanda receives a phony love letter purporting to be from her Australian crush, but written in broken English, as it was really written by an Italian.
    • The Vietnamese Tran family in Janie's Private Eyes occasionally border on this.
  • Fiery Redhead: Molly, whom Jeff calls a "Celt" due to her red hair and hot temper.
  • Fluffy Tamer: Blair, who tames Amanda's vicious pet crow in about thirty seconds and who is constantly charming animals (including a neighbor's pet turkey and a stray Irish wolfhound) and bringing them home. Much of the premise of Blair's Nightmare is that Blair's done this so often their dad has forbidden any more pets in the house meaning Blair has to keep the wolfhound a secret, which he does so well that everyone thinks it's imaginary.
  • Free-Range Children: Part of the reason Jeff chose to move the kids to the country to begin with is because his work schedule leaves them unsupervised during the day, and their small country town is safer for them to roam and explore. But even though this is a feature, not a bug, they sometimes take it too far, such as when five-year-old Blair wanders off and becomes lost in Blair's Nightmare.
  • Genre Roulette: Each book is so different from the others, it's as if the characters are the only unifying force in the series.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Thoroughly subverted. Fraternal twins Blair and Tesser barely even look related: Tesser has short, straight brown hair, brown eyes, and a plain, chubby face, while Blair has blond curls, huge blue eyes, and looks (according to Molly) like an angel on a Christmas card.
  • Heel–Face Turn:
    • In The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case, two of the teenage kidnappers have an Even Evil Has Standards revelation and turn on their boss when they realize he really will harm the children.
    • Pete Garvey has a similar revelation in Janie's Private Eyes when he realizes that his friends, who are the dognappers, are putting David and his younger siblings' lives in danger.
  • Heel–Faith Turn: In The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case, David counts on their Italian kidnappers being devout Catholic and organizes the other kids to fake a miracle to play on the kidnappers' guilt. It works on about half of them.
  • Hypocritical Heartwarming: Amanda makes it clear to Paul Garvey that only she can give David crap.
  • Kid Detective:
    • Janie becomes this in Blair's Nightmare, then takes it to the next level in Janie's Private Eyes.
    • David has shades of this in The Headless Cupid as he hunts for proof that Amanda's behind the poltergeist activity. He doesn't count on there being a real poltergeist, though.
  • Love at First Punch: Amanda punches Pete Garvey for bullying David. This results in Pete leaving David alone and developing an enormous crush on Amanda.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Amanda has such a crush on a handsome English high school boy that she fails to notice that the "love letter" he sends her is riddled with grammatical errors, hinting that he didn't write it at all.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Blair's psychic powers are left ambiguous, as is the matter of whether or not the Stanley house is really haunted (though if you believe one, you have to believe the other).
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Arguably averted. While Janie's aware of the trope and sometimes plays to it for attention, functionally it's impossible to ignore her or leave her out since she's the one who tends to instigate everything.
  • The Meddling Kids Are Useless: Played surprisingly straight in Janie's Private Eyes. While the kids actually do find out who the dognappers are and get proof, it's someone else who calls the cops and solves the case, rescuing the kids (who are in danger) in the process.
  • Never Say "Die": At least not in English. When David begins to think that their kidnappers might kill them all, in the second book, the words "die" or "kill" are never used in the narration. The Italian word for dead, "morto", is used when Amanda is being told to write a ransom note in English by the Italian-speaking captors, but Janie refuses to translate it.
  • Not-So-Imaginary Friend: Blair's pretend dog turns out to be real.
    • Blair's other imaginary friend—a little girl named Harriette—might also be real...and a ghost. That one's a little harder to prove, though, except that Harriette has a habit of telling Blair things he couldn't possibly know on his own, but which always turn out to be true.
  • Out-of-Character Alert:
    • In The Headless Cupid, the kids are initiated into Amanda's coven via a ritual in which they're not allowed to speak. To ally suspicions, they each take turns having a day of silence. This works fine for everyone except garrulous Janie: when she stops talking, both parents immediately suspect something's up.
    • In The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case, Amanda receives a fake love letter supposedly from an Australian she has a crush on. But David notes that the English in the love letter is broken, and not something her crush - or any native English speaker - would ever write.
  • Police Are Useless: Played straight in The Famous Stanley Kidnapping and Blair's Nightmare (where the kids subdue the criminals while the police are still searching for them) but subverted in Janie's Private Eyes where the cops do their job and save the kids in the nick of time.
  • Prolonged Prologue: Happens in The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case. Much of the first 90 pages of the book are the author spending a lot of time showing the family preparing to go Italy, then settling into their rented home, before the real plot kicks in.
  • Psychic Powers: Amanda fakes having them in The Headless Cupid, but gives up the pretense by the end of the book. Blair, meanwhile, displays some psychic powers throughout the entire series, and they appear to be legit. David remembers that their mother also occasionally seemed precognitive and suspects Blair inherited her gift. David likewise seems to have some powers of intuition, but they're much more low-key and may have more to do with the fact that he's a good observer.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni:
    • Molly and Jeff are a Red Oni, Blue Oni parental team: Molly is the ditzy, permissive, artistic, and emotional Red Oni (with the red hair to go with it) to Jeff's more authoritarian, serious, pragmatic Blue Oni.
    • The twins. Esther is the Red Oni, prone to irritating stubbornness, whining, and temper tantrums, while Blue Oni Blair is the almost supernaturally calm, quiet, mystical half of the pair. In their case, it's even evident in their costumes: Esther is frequently described wearing her favorite red corduroy jumper with a small red bow in her hair, while Blair likes his blue denim overalls and has huge, striking blue eyes that everyone comments on.
    • David and Amanda: Amanda's the Red Oni, prone to dramatics, taking everything personally and making things more difficult; David's the Blue Oni, holding things together while being coolly amused by the shenanigans.
  • Real After All:
    • The Stanley family poltergeist turns out to be a hoax perpetrated by Amanda. The Stanley family ghost, on the other hand, turns out to be real.
    • Blair's "imaginary" dog.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • The kids are kidnapped for ransom, and Amanda and David have to convince the younger kids that this isn't a game and that their kidnappers might really hurt them if they step out of line. Meanwhile, the kidnappers, largely consisting of teens and twentysomethings, realize they're doing something highly illegal and start to have second thoughts: the kidnappers who have younger siblings of their own start to empathize with their prisoners and feel guilty, while some of the older kidnappers, who were cruising on the idea of being real gangsters, resent that they're basically babysitters with guns. They also underestimate the amount of work it is to keep five children, three of them under the age of ten, alive and quiet.
    • The pair of escaped convicts hiding in the Stanley family's woods are indeed armed, dangerous, and desperate, and both of them have committed violent crimes in the past. They also greatly underestimated their ability to survive in the woods. By the time they're discovered, they're on the verge of starvation, one of them has a serious infection from a minor wound, and they're willing to give themselves up to a thirteen-year-old boy and go back to jail in exchange for medical treatment.
  • Ritual Magic: What Amanda practices in The Headless Cupid. By the next book, however, she's grown out of it.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: Happens in one of the books. A very skeptical character even assumes that it is one well before it's revealed.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang:
    • David is practical, easy-going, and responsible; Amanda is more high-strung, selfish, obstinate, and prone to dramatics.
    • Blair and Tesser. Blair is almost ethereal in both looks and personality, seeming to spend most of his time engaging with the unseen, while Tesser is the most solid, ordinary little girl you'd ever want to meet.
  • Snooping Little Kid: Janie is this throughout the series, but her snooping takes center stage in the third and fourth books, driving a lot of the plot.
  • Tagalong Kid: Tesser for the most part. She isn't very bright, and tends to be pretty useless, but won't let the others do anything without her.
  • Tear Jerker: When Amanda learns her Very Important Father has dropped everything to rush out to Italy to rescue her, she bursts into tears, seeing it as proof that he really does care about her.
  • Teens Are Monsters: To an extent. Kidnapping, including kids as young as 4? (to be fair, their actual target was 13, but her siblings were there too) Dognapping? They're teens just in it for the money, working for adults. On the other hand, some of them are redeemable. Though there is the one jerk who nearly runs over a 6 year old in his hot rod.
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: David and Amanda start out the same size. By the second book, Amanda has six inches over him, while David remains short for the rest of the series and is picked on at school because of it.
  • Unfazed Everyman: David Stanley. The rest of the family's so eccentric that David's more or less immune to anything they can throw at him, and at times he proves better-equipped to deal with his quirky younger siblings than even his parents.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Blair's eyes are enormous and a very striking shade of blue. Even complete strangers remark upon them, and Amanda, who goes in prepared to hate everything, is taken aback when she meets Blair for the first time.
  • Write Who You Know: David and Amanda are based on kids the author once knew. David was based on a fifth-grade boy who "had a very mature sense of fair play" and had to look after a bunch of younger siblings. Amanda was based on a girl who showed interest in the occult "to punish her parents." These are practically descriptions of David and Amanda themselves, especially Amanda in the first book.

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