I have a personal connection to Madeleine L’Engle. Well, connection might be too strong a word. It might be more realistic to call it a passing acquaintance similar to that of sitting in the same plane as a celebrity, celebrity in first class with the champagne flute, me squashed in coach with the packet of peanuts.
Thirty years ago I was writing and reading children’s books, many of them stories I’d missed in my own childhood, some written after I’d become an adult. I met L’Engle at a conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers in the summer of 1982 or ’83. She was the keynote speaker, and I was a second year associate member who needed to get published in order to remain in the Society. (No, I didn’t attain the desired professional status. My fault entirely.) I’d read her books as an adult and loved every one. Her speech was moving and inspiring. Though I no longer recall any of her points, I do remember being transfixed by her professional demeanor and insider’s knowledge.
The conference that year, held at the Marriott in Santa Barbara, offered entry level writers a chance to have a work in progress reviewed by a notable writer for a $10 fee in addition to the conference fees. An unbelievable bargain, and even then more like a steal. I submitted my book, a work for juvenile middle readers, and was astounded to learn that L’Engle herself had been selected to review it.
She invited me to her room for our half hour meeting. There I sat with my jaw dropping and my heartbeat lurching as she changed clothes for the evening event. Her lively, pixie-ish face belied a tall and confident woman whose self assurance as a well regarded writer brooked no silliness, not even from tongue tied fans like me. Since I was sure that whatever I said might be regarded as nothing other than pure and unadulterated idiocy, I did the one wise thing I can always count on and hardly spoke at all.
Ms. L’Engle tossed my manuscript to me and said, “Well, you know what’s wrong with your book. I don’t need to tell you.” Immediately cowed by her statement, I nodded. Though I knew the book needed revision, I had no idea how to repair it. How dull I must be not to recognize what had to be done to fix the mess of my story. A good writer couldn’t get far without knowing how to edit her own work. Surely, L’Engle needed no one to tell her what to fix or revise. She likely wrote with no revisions necessary. I wasn’t going to get any closer to great writing than to sit in that hotel room near her. My dull writing skill would have to improve by some other more prosaic means.
It would be decades before I realized that she’d never bothered to read my book. Why would an author of her stature read a loose manuscript written by an unpublished nobody? Still, I sat in the presence of one of the greatest writers of children’s literature, and few other conference attendees could say the same. If she didn’t want to waste her breath reviewing the errors and lapses I should have caught, who could blame her? I was certain she had already begun her newest book but realized at the end of the interview, I’d forgotten to ask about it.
Still, my $10 was well spent and I have no regrets. While changing her clothes and fixing her hair for the next event, she talked to me for 30 minutes about her life. Though I’d read about 15 of her books by that time, there was no Internet and people still had a measure of privacy about their lives. One of the things she told me was that her own favorite book was The Small Rain, her earliest published book. She regretted that it was long out of print. I’ve never read it, having never located a copy.
Over the years I continued to read her books, impressed by the quality of her writing, the suspense of her plots, and the determination of her characters. I liked that they showed up in multiple stories, their personalities and skills developing in each new sequel. I also liked that she respected her young audience with books that she never dumbed down to the supposed child level.
If her characters seemed a bit too gifted and rapturous, that was part of her author’s charm, to imbue them with passion and clear motivations. Of all her books I read so many years ago, I remember many of the details of her stories and the brilliant children who peopled them. Madeleine L’Engle was not a glitzy cardboard person, and to admire her writing skills is a feat worthy of any aspiring writer, no matter one’s genre or intended audience.
I took away several of her books autographed to my sons, and a memory of a gracious and vibrant woman who made no space for sloth or failure. Fascinated by science and culture, she said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Winner of the Newberry award for A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle’s stories are full of the wonder with which she regarded the world. Her brave child protagonists explored difficult and dangerous places, and as all child heroes must, they repaired what the adults around them had trashed in pursuit of power, nonsense, or false gods. When she died in 2007, I felt a personal loss, along with thousands of other admirers.
Miss you, Ms. L’Engle. I still enjoy your books. So does a younger generation of readers. Your stories endure.