Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle is dead. I think it was through the Scholastic Book Service (whose deliveries were one of the very few bright spots in the hellish years of third, fourth and fifth grades) that I first got a copy of A Wrinkle In Time. It was the blue mass-market paperback pictured at right, shorter (in height) than the standard paperback. I’ve long since lost that copy, and I now have the edition with the scary cover that regyt mentioned in her post.

Anyway, I adored that book (with its thoroughly unthreatening abstract cover) although parts of it were pretty scary. I had a crush on Meg but I liked Calvin anyway and I wanted to meet Mrs. Who. I read the sequels when I found out they existed. I read other young adult novels she’d written (The Young Unicorns), and then her adult fiction (A Severed Wasp, in particular, which I’ve reread several times).

About ten years ago I was at work one day, in the World Financial Center, and a co-worker looked up from the paper as we were all eating lunch and said, “Hey, Madeleine L’Engle is signing books over at the Trinity Church bookstore.” (One good thing about that job was that I was not the only person in the room who said “Really???”) So we walked over and met her, and I bought a copy of The Other Side Of the Sun, which she signed for me. We chatted with her for a while as the lunch hour ended and the store emptied out, and she was every bit as kind and engaging as I’d imagined from her books.

The inscription, more than just a signature, is lovely, but what charmed me the most was when she flipped to the first page of the book and corrected a typo (“sandpipers stalked” had become “sandpipers talked”). “This edition embarrasses me,” she said. “It’s full of typos. The kind that spell-checkers don’t catch.”

Her writing always spoke to me, was always an escape. She wrote realistically about children and teenagers. She wrote about worlds in which it was good to read lots of books and have an inquiring mind. Her books were full of gentle humor and a deep respect for learning and knowledge. She was identifiably Christian, but always gentle and compassionate and open-minded, never spinning off into pathology the way writers like C.S. Lewis often did. In my early teenage years, the Catholic Church reversed what had been a gradual course of liberalization and turned sharply rightward under John Paul II. The religious authorities in her books were a welcome relief from the mean-spirited intolerants who characterized organized religion in my life. Her books were deeply moral, but never judgmental, and encouraged thinking rather than condemning it. The first time I saw the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in person, it was her books I was thinking about.

“Of course I’m Meg,” she told an interviewer. Of course I loved her!

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