Madeleine LEngle, Childrens Writer, Is Dead
Madeleine LEngle, Childrens Writer, Is Dead
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: September 8, 2007
Madeleine LEngle, who in writing more than 60 books, including childhood
fables, religious meditations and science fiction, weaved emotional
tapestries transcending genre and generation, died Thursday in
Connecticut. She was 88.
Her death, of natural causes, was announced today by her publisher,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Ms. LEngle (pronounced LENG-el) was best known for her childrens
classic, A Wrinkle in Time, which won the John Newbery Award as the best
childrens book of 1963. By 2004, it had sold more than 6 million copies,
was in its 67th printing and was still selling 15,000 copies a year.
Her works poetry, plays, autobiography and books on prayer were
deeply, quixotically personal. But it was in her vivid childrens
characters that readers most clearly glimpsed her passionate search for
the questions that mattered most. She sometimes spoke of her writing as if
she were taking dictation from her subconscious.
Of course Im Meg, Ms. LEngle said about the beloved protagonist of A
Wrinkle in Time.
The St. James Guide to Childrens Writers called Ms. LEngle one of the
truly important writers of juvenile fiction in recent decades. Such
accolades did not come from pulling punches: Wrinkle is one of the most
banned books because of its treatment of the deity.
It was a dark and stormy night, it begins, repeating the line of a 19th-
century novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, and presaging the immortal
sentence that Snoopy, the inspiration-challenged beagle of the Peanuts
cartoon, would type again and again. After the opening, Wrinkle, quite
literally, takes off. Meg Murray, with help from her psychic baby brother,
uses time travel and extrasensory perception to rescue her father, a
gifted scientist, from a planet controlled by the Dark Thing. She does so
through the power of love.
The book used concepts that Ms. LEngle said she had plucked from
Einsteins theory of relativity and Plancks quantum theory, almost
flaunting her frequent assertion that childrens literature is literature
too difficult for adults to understand. She also characterized the book as
her refutation of ideas of German theologians.
In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Marygail G. Parker notes a
peculiar splendor in Ms. LEngles oeuvre, and some of that splendor is
sheer literary range. Wrinkle is part of her Time Fantasy series of
childrens books, which includes A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting
Planet, Many Waters and An Acceptable Time. The series combines
elements of science fiction with insights into love and moral purpose that
pervade Ms. LEngles writing.
Ms. LEngles other famous series of books concerned another family. The
first installment, Meet the Austins, which appeared in 1960, portrayed
an affectionate family whose members displayed enough warts to make them
interesting. (Perhaps not enough for The Times Literary Supplement in
London, though; it called the Austins too good to be real.)
By the fourth of the five Austin books, A Ring of Endless Light, any
hint of Pollyanna was gone. Named a Newbery Honor Book in 1981, it told of
a 16-year-old girls first experience with death. Telepathic communication
with dolphins eventually helps the girl, Vicky, achieve a new
understanding of things.
The cosmic battle between light and darkness, good and evil, love and
indifference, personified in the mythic fantasies of the Wrinkle in Time
series, here is waged compellingly in its rightful place: within
ourselves, Carol Van Strum wrote in The Washington Post in 1980.
Madeleine LEngle Camp was born in Manhattan on the snowy night of Nov.
29, 1918. The only child of Madeleine Hall Barnett and Charles Wadsworth
Camp, she was named for her great-grandmother, who was also named
Young Madeleines mother came from Jacksonville, Fla., society and was a
fine pianist; her father was a World War I veteran who worked as a foreign
correspondent and later as drama and music critic for The New York Sun. He
also knocked out potboiler novels.
The family lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; her parents had
artistic friends, Madeleine an English nanny. She felt unpopular at
school. She recalled that an elementary school teacher Miss Pepper or
Miss Salt, she couldnt remember which treated her as if she were stupid.
She had written her first story at 5 and retreated into writing. When she
won a poetry contest in the fifth grade, her teacher accused her of
plagiarizing. Her mother intervened to prove her innocence, lugging a
stack of her stories from home.
When she was 12, she was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland,
Chatelard, and at 15 to Ashley Hall, a boarding school in Charleston, S.C.
She graduated from Smith College with honors in English. (She took no
science, often a surprise to readers impressed with her science fiction.)
Returning to New York, Ms. LEngle began to get small acting parts. She
wrote her first novel, The Small Rain, in 1945 and had several plays she
She met the actor Hugh Franklin when both were appearing in a production
of Chekhovs The Cherry Orchard. They married in 1946, and their
daughter Josephine was born the next year. In 1951, when Ms. LEngle
became pregnant again, they moved to the small town of Goshen, Conn.,
where they bought and ran a general store. Their son, Bion, was born in
1952, and in 1956 they adopted another daughter, Maria.
Mr. Franklin died in 1986 and Bion in 1999. Ms. LEngle is survived by her
daughters, Josephine F. Jones and Maria Rooney; five grandchildren; and
Ms. LEngles writing career was going so badly in her 30s that she
claimed she almost quit writing at 40. But then Meet the Austins was
published in 1960, and she was already deeply into Wrinkle. The
inspiration came to her during a 10-week family camping trip.
That was just the start. She once described herself as a French peasant
cook who drops a carrot in one pot, a piece of potato in another and an
onion and a piece of meat in another.
At dinnertime, you look and see which pot smells best and pull it
forward, she was quoted as saying in a 2001 book, Madeleine LEngle
(Herself): Reflections on a Writing Life, compiled by Carole F. Chase.
The same is true with writing, she continued. There are several pots on
Her deeper thoughts on writing were deliciously mysterious. She believed
that experience and knowledge are subservient to the subconscious and
perhaps larger, spiritual influences.
I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him, she
said in an interview with Horn Book magazine in 1983. I know that is true
of A Wrinkle in Time. I cannot possibly tell you how I came to write it.
It was simply 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.
What turned out to be her masterpiece was rejected by 26 publishers.
Editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux loved it enough to publish it, but
told her that she should not be disappointed if it failed.
The family moved back to New York, where Hugh Franklin won fame as Dr.
Charles Taylor on the popular soap opera All My Children. For more than
three decades, starting in 1966, Ms. LEngle served as librarian and
writer-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. One or
two of her dogs often accompanied her to the cathedral library.
Much of her later work was autobiographical, although sometimes a bit
idealized; she often said that her real truths were in her fiction.
Indeed, she discussed her made-up stories the way a newspaper reporter
might discuss his latest article about a crime.
When her son, then 10, protested the death of Joshua in The Arms of the
Starfish (1965), she insisted that she could not change the tale, which
was still unpublished at the time.
I didnt want Joshua to die, either, Ms. LEngle said in 1987 in a
speech accepting the Margaret Edwards Award from the American Library
Association for lifetime achievement in writing young adult literature,
one of scores of awards she received.
But thats what happened. If I tried to change it, Id be deviating from
the truth of the story.
Her characters continued living their lives even if she hadnt mentioned
them for decades. She had gotten word that Polly OKeefe, who appeared in
three books of the Time Fantasy series, was in medical school, she said
a few months before the library speech.
A woman wrote her to say that she herself was a first-year medical student
at Yale and that she would love to have Peggy in her class. Ms. LEngle
said fine, and the student went to the registrars office to sign up Peggy
as an official Yale medical student.
Why does anybody tell a story? Ms. LEngle once asked, even though she
knew the answer.
It does indeed have something to do with faith, she said, faith that
the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant,
that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.