In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Madeline L'Engle as chick lit

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Yes, I'm a big L'Engle fan, and a bit of a completist: I'm pretty sure I've read every YA book she wrote, and own a copy of most of them.  I read and re-read a number of YA authors obsessively:  Cynthia Voight, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, and Paula Danziger were my favorites aside from L'Engle.  More on them in another post.

The Austins books never really grabbed me.  They were well-written, but they didn't contain the spark that the Wrinkle in Time series held.  I think part of it is that I could never fully identify with Vicky Austin: too normal and pretty and well-adjusted.  Give me an outcast nerd poised to bloom, anytime.

L'Engle saw her YA novels as being written in two different frameworks.  I think of them as realistic and magical, but a little searching has helped me with the terms she herself used: Chronos and Kairos.  Wikipedia explains:

The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time in between, a moment of undetermined period of time in which something special happens. What the special something is depends on who is using the word. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative nature.

Wrinkle in Time and the other books following the Murry-O'Keefe families are, of course, Kairos.  The Austins and their ilk are Chronos.  I remember buying one of L'Engle's later books in hardcover and finding a chart, a sort of double family tree, in the inside front cover.  It was wildly exciting, laying out all of the characters in both sets of books and their relationships to each other, and indicating the few characters that move between the two frameworks.  This was one of the pleasures of reading so much L'Engle: you keep finding characters you know at one age from one book at a completely different age in another.

So, a few favorites:

The Young Unicorns
is one of the Austin family books, but the character I remember most strongly from it is Vicky's friend Emily Gregory, a brilliant blind musician.  The book is set in New York, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and has some intense scenes in abandoned subway tunnels as well as at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where L'Engle worked for years..  It's a mystery, full of danger and intrigue.  It's my favorite Chronos book, hands down.

The second-generation Kairos books focus on Meg and Calvin's oldest child (they have seven.  And are professional scientists together.  How can you not love them?).  Polyhymnia is called Poly in some books and Polly in others; in any case, she was my second-favorite L'Engle heroine, after Meg.  My favorite of the Polly books is the last, chronologically: A House Like A Lotus.  It's a complex read, despite the cheesy cover picture on this now out-of-print edition.  Polly is 16 years old, working at a conference in Cyprus, mentored by an older lesbian woman named Maxa.  Maxa is terminally ill, and in a moment of misery and drunkenness she makes a move on Polly, which sends Polly running.  Much of the book is about Polly trying to work through what she feels was a major breach of trust, and coming to terms with the complexity of loving someone as a mentor even after she disappoints you personally.  It's a really good book.

Finally, there are L'Engle's two semi-autobiographical novels, The Small Rain and
A Severed Wasp
.  They're labeled as adult fiction, but I read them as a teenager and loved them.  L'Engle's alter-ego is a pianist named Katherine Forrester.  The first book focuses on her young-womanhood; in the second, she is 70 years old, returning to New York from a life in Europe.   I remember both as pleasingly sweeping and dramatic.

What a pleasure to revisit these books!  I really need to dig some boxes out of my parents' storage room.

Love, Annie


  1. Annie, I can't begin to tell you how important L'Engle was to me as a young adolescent - in about my 4th-to-9th-grade years. I got started with the Kairos novels and loved them, especially Swiftly Tilting Planet, but from the perspective of 20 years later the more reality-grounded Chronos universe stories, specifically the Austin ones, are the ones that seem to have really stuck. I think that's because they told me about a family that seemed achievable, similar to mine but enough different, enough better, to be exotic. (At that point in my life the West Side was an undiscovered country and everything was exotic.) They were a sort of shelter magazine of YA fiction - aspirational, for me, with their getting up early in the morning and believing in God and spending lots of time together. I checked a few volumes of L'Engle's journals out of the Society Library too (you weren't the only completist out there), and her memoir Two-Part Invention, though debunked by her children, is still a good and moving read that I think of very often. -Sarah L.

  2. Sarah, I'm so excited to hear this from you! Perhaps we can have a special L'Engle book club someday soon....