L’Engle, Madeleine

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L’Engle, Madeleine

Born Madeleine L’Engle Camp, November 29, 1918, in New York, NY; died of natural causes, September 6, 2007, in Litchfield, CT. Author. The author of poetry, plays, autobiography, and religious devotion-als, Madeleine L’Engle was best known for the young adult novel that made her famous: A Wrinkle in Time. The novel was chosen as a Newbery Medal winner, and, although L’Engle wrote more than 60 books, A Wrinkle in Time remains the novel that marked her career.

L’Engle gained her reputation as a children’s author, but she never liked the boundaries that implied. “I never write for any age group in mind,” she was quoted as having said on CNN.com. “When people do, they tend to be tolerant and condescending and they don’t write as well as they can write. When you underestimate your audience, you’re cutting yourself off from your best work.”

Born to aging parents and named for her great grandmother, L’Engle grew up, much like her famous protagonist Meg Murry, feeling out of place. Surrounded by the arts—her mother was a pianist and her father an author—L’Engle began writing stories herself at an early age. In fifth grade, she was accused of cheating on her entry in a poetry contest, and her mother brought piles of L’Engle’s work to school in her defense.

But school continued to be an unhappy affair, and L’Engle was sent to boarding schools in such locations as Switzerland and South Carolina. She studied English at Smith College, where she graduated cum laude in 1941. Along with her interest in writing, she was involved in theater, and when she returned home to New York, she took several small roles, as well as wrote plays. Her first novel, A Small Rain, was published in 1945.

Despite the positive start, it was several years before she had another work published. In the theater, she met Hugh Franklin; they married in 1946. They had their first child, Josephine, the following year. Their son, Bion, followed in 1952, and they adopted another daughter, Maria, in 1956. Unable to sell another manuscript, L’Engle worked at a grocery shop that she ran with Franklin in Connecticut. Her writing career was so stalled that she considered quitting all together. But when Meet the Austins was accepted in 1960, she regained some of her hope. She shopped another novel around, certain it was for adults, but had the manuscript rejected 26 times. It was only when John Farrar of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux suggested it be published as a children’s novel did A Wrinkle in Time find a home.

A story that blends fantasy, science fiction, religious ideas, and adventure, A Wrinkle in Time has sold eight million copies and has the distinction of being heavily censored. The book features three teens, including one of the young adult genre’s early female leads in an adventure story, who must travel across the galaxy to combat an entity that forces conformity and represents dark powers. It is only through love that heroine Meg Murry can triumph against the darkness and rescue her father. Accused by religious conservatives of including witches and presenting inaccurate ideas about God, the book was attacked even as it was lauded by critics. “It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it,” L’Engle once told the New York Times. “Nonsense about witchcraft and fantasy. First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, ‘Ah, the hell with it.’ It’s great publicity, really.” The saga of A Wrinkle in Time continued in other books featuring the same characters, including A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time.

The series she began with Meet the Austins continued as well, telling stories of an affectionate family that some critics felt was too good to be true. But even in that series, L’Engle tackled difficult questions about faith and mortality. The books also integrated the element of fantasy which L’Engle’s readers came to expect: In the fourth title, the 16year-old narrator learns to telepathically communicate with dolphins, who help her deal with the death of a loved one.

Along with her novels for teens, L’Engle wrote memoirs, picture books, and books on religious themes. For many years, she was the librarian and writer-in-residence in New York’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. L’Engle was devoted to her Christian faith and promoted a Jungian understanding of the importance of myth. She often felt that her writing was a subconscious or spiritual experience. According to the New York Times, she once said of A Wrinkle in Time, “I cannot possibly tell you how I came to write it. It simply was a book I had to write. I had no choice. It was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant.”

Along with her Newbery Award, L’Engle received the National Humanities Medal from U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004. L’Engle died of natural causes at a nursing home in Litchfield, Connecticut, where she had been living for three years. Her death on September 6, 2007, came months before her 89th birthday and the release of a previously unpublished young adult novel based on her own life, The Joys of Love. She is survived by her daughters, Josephine F. Jones and Maria Rooney, as well as the legacy of her writing. Sources: CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2007/SHOWBIZ/books/09/07/obit.lengle.ap/index.html (September 10, 2007); Entertainment Weekly,http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20056586.tif,00.html (September 25, 2007); Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2007, p. B10; New York Times, September 8, 2007, p. A13; People, September 24, 2007, p. 72; Times (London), September 25, 2007, p. 60.

—Alana Joli Abbott