A Conversation with Madeleine L’Engle

Isolation by Denise Klitsie for Young People

+ In 1997, women from the Fuller community sat down with celebrated author Madeleine L’Engle for a conversation on children’s literature. This interview was originally published as “Too Difficult For Children?” in Theology, News and Notes (Dec 1997). Find more information below.

Jeannette Scholer: When introducing you as the guest lecturer at this year’s Fuller Women’s Conference “Looking Back, Looking Forward,” President Mouw quoted you as having said that if you have something really difficult to say, then you choose the form of a children’s book.

Madeleine L’Engle: That came from a time in my life when I was asking all the cosmic questions about God and Jesus and the incarnation and finding no answers in the logical places such as church. And we were very faithful churchgoers. For some reason I picked up a book of Einstein’s and I read that anyone who is not lost in raptur­ous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burned-out candle. And I thought, “I’ve found my theolo­gian.” That’s when I began to read Einstein and Planck and the quantum theory and that whole incredible world of particle physics and quantum mechanicswhich I’m not intelligent enough to understand but intelligent enough to know that it doesn’t matter.

So, in A Wrinkle in Time, I was subconsciously rebutting German theologians who were answering questions that I didn’t believe had answerswho wanted to put faith, that can only be answered with the heart, in the terms of provable fact. I had to write about a universe in which I could believe, one that had been created by a loving God, a God who cared. You can’t prove the incarnation. It is outside the realm of proof. It doesn’t make any sense at all. It was a totally crazy thing for God to doyet it was wonderful! But if I have to understand it in a rational way, I lose it.

Jeannette: Of course A Wrinkle in Time is in the realm of fantasy. But you’ve also written realistic fiction for children. Is it the basic concept of “story” that carries fundamental, essential truth?

Madeleine: My husband and I lived in the country when we were raising our kidsin a dairy-farm village. There was no kindergar­ten, and half of the children going to first grade had never seen a book. I wasn’t finding any theological stimulation in what the kids were being taught or in what was going on in church. Though we went to church, we didn’t want to think about God. But occasionally, we were forced into thinking about God and death by tragedywatching the father of one family of three young children slowly die of cancer. For me, it made the most sense through writing.

Nobody had ever told me that when you write for children, you write differently than when you write for the grown-up market. So I didn’t. My first several books were regular trade novels [for adults]. Then I wrote Meet the Austins, the book before Wrinkle, as a Valentine present for my husband. It almost never got published, because it begins with the family’s reaction to a death that affected them all, and death was a taboo then [in publishing for children]. At that time, I was also struggling with what I could believe about God.

“I had to write about a universe in which I could believe, one that had been created by a loving God, a God who cared.”

In Dorothy Sayers’ Mind of the Maker there’s a funny story about a Japanese gentleman who is studying the Trinity. He finds it a difficult concept and says, “Honorable Father very good; Honorable Son very good; Honor­able Bird, I do not understand at all.” Well, that was never my problemit was “Honorable Son” I was having trouble with.

I was trying to understand the incarnation in terms of fact. But it doesn’t work in terms of fact. So, in writing Wrinkle, I was trying to listen to what the incarnation is really about. It was a wonderful book to write. And I thought it was the best thing I had ever written, so I was not prepared for two-and-a-half years of rejections. You can’t name a major publisher who didn’t reject it. One reason was that it didn’t “categorize.” When I occasionally got a human response instead of a printed rejection form, it would be, “Who is this book for? Is this book for children? Is this for grown ups?” I said, “It’s for people.”

I think we underestimate kids. Small children’s ability to understand difficult theological concepts is enormous. Once they start school, it goes down. But I’ve had my best conversations with my children and with the high school Sunday school class I taught, because they were willing to ask the difficult questions. And they didn’t want me to throw back simplified answers. We struggled with them together. I think I did more thinking during that period than at any other time.

Jeannette: Meet the Austins was among the first of what is some­times called the “new realism” in children’s books. C. S. Lewis chose to write fantasies because he observed that realistic stories as he knew them had a greater potential for deception, as being unlike the world he experienced as a child. You’ve written in both genres, fantasy and realism.

Madeleine: Well, I enjoy both. One of the things that C. S. Lewis and I have in common is George MacDonald. I was lucky enough to grow up on him. Lewis didn’t discover MacDonald until he was grown, but I read him as a child. He lived in that mythic world which was real. And it’s only in that kind of reality that I could understand the God that I wanted to love and that I wanted to have love me.

I’m grateful that no one told me you write differently for children, or that you use easier words. (But of course “tesseract” is not on any vocabulary list!) My idea is that when you write a book, you write the best book you can possibly write. I don’t believe I know what a “children’s book” is. If it’s not good enough for me, it’s not good enough for a child. You can always tell when a book has been written for children. There’s something condescending and unreal about it. I think the scene in The Wind in the Willows, where Mole and Rat go to the Holy Island, goes right along with Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor as being the two greatest pieces of religious writing that I know. The books I read as a child that I loved the most are books I still enjoy. They’re literate, they don’t avoid using a word that is necessary, and they don’t avoid the difficult questions.

Jeannette: But obviously there are books that are for children, books that children can identify with.

Madeleine: Well, let’s draw a line between picture books and books children read to themselves that don’t have pictures. Beyond that, books have to make sense to children. But there’s not much that, as long as a writer is honest, doesn’t make sense. I wrote one young adult novel about forgive­ness, and I get a lot of flak about one page which deals with sex­ and the flak always comes from Christians. I keep writing back that this is not a book about sex, it’s about forgiveness. Teenagers say, “This book is helping me forgive.” Children will often go to the core of what a book is about, whereas adults will suddenly find a word they don’t like, then they’ll not finish reading the book.

When A Wrinkle in Time was first published, it was hailed by the evangelical world as a Christian book. Yet now it is one of the ten most censored books in the United States. And not one word of that book has been changed. What happened?

Barbara Eurcich-Rascoe: I think people have gotten more literalalmost afraid of imagination.

Madeleine: If they were really consistent, they would have to throw out the Bible. What are they going to do with Ezekiel’s wheels? It’s very hard to put that in terms of literalism.

Jeannette: I think we’re seeing the overreaction of adults who censor by looking just at words, rather than understanding ideas.

Madeleine: My parents didn’t censor what I read, and I didn’t censor what my kids read, par­ticularly as they got into junior high and high school. When I knew they were reading books I thought were dreadful, I just read them too. Then we discussed them, and I would say, “This is really very poorly written. The problem is not with the eroticism in the plot; it’s just that the author doesn’t write very well.” It made much more sense to read what they were reading and discuss why it didn’t work as literature.

Margery Corben: I think one of the things that I appreciate about your books is that you don’t answer all the questions. I think that for childrenas well as for grown-ups who haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be childrenthis is a crucial element. One of the things that made me want to read more as a child was that I had to think.

Barbara: Going back to our earlier conversation, I don’t think I ever made a distinction between A Wrinkle in Time and Meet the Austins as two separate genres. They’re both real.

Madeleine: They’re different aspects of one reality.

Barbara: Yes! I didn’t approach them any differently, except that I know that in reading The Moon by Night [another book about the Austins], I knew that I wanted to go to the Grand Canyon, which I’d never done before. But after reading A Wrinkle in Time, I knew I had to “tesseract.”

Madeleine: There are all kinds of ways that ignorance has been very helpful in my life. When I started writing, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a Christian publisher. It never occurred to me to send my books anywhere except to mainline publishers. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to mention Jesus in a mainline publisher’s book. I didn’t know that there were science fiction publishers. I didn’t know you don’t use a female protagonist in a book. I was female, so why on earth wouldn’t I? Naivete has been helpful.

Jeannette: I’ve heard you say that as a story is formulating, it leads you in a direction-and you have to follow it. Then you’re not specifically thinking of the audience, but of telling the story?

Madeleine: If I’m thinking of the audience, I’m not thinking of my story. When I’m writing a story, that’s all I am thinking about. In writing The Arm of the Starfish, I was fascinated with the fact that way, way back, human beings and starfish came from the same chordate. So what we learn about regeneration in starfish should have some bearing on what we learn about healing in our own bodies.

I had worked with a marine biologist on experiments with starfish. It was also at that time in my life when I was having trouble with “Honorable Son.” I was trying much too hard to be literal about the incarnation. So I started writing.

My protagonist, Adam, is going to an island off the south coast of Portugal to do some work with an American marine biologist. He gets caught in a web of international intrigue. A child in his care is kidnapped; he goes three nights without sleep; then he finally sleeps himself out in a Lisbon hotel. When he wakes up, there’s a young man named Joshua in his room, sitting in a chair and looking at him. Adam is very surprised to see Joshua. (Madeleine was very surprised to see Joshua! There was no Joshua in my plot.) Now, as a college graduate, I knew perfectly well that Joshua and Jesus are the same nameand that all this meant something, that maybe something was going to happen to Joshuawhich, in fact, it does.

I was reading the final version of the story to my mother and my ten-year-old son, and when I got to the scene where Joshua was killed, my son said, “Change it.” I said, “I can’t change it, that’s what happened.” He said, “But you’re the writer! You can change it!” I said, “I can’tthat’s what happened.” Writing is as real as that. If it isn’t that real, it doesn’t work.

My books ultimately know a great deal more than I know. Some of it I learn after the book has been published. I think, “Oh, that’s what this meant!” But having Joshua arrive in the story to teach me, just at the point where I needed him most in my own life, that was just one of God’s little quirky senses of humor.

Jeannette: There are a lot of adults who have cut themselves off from wonderful literature by thinking it’s just for children . . .

Madeleine: That’s a topic dear to my heart. When Simon and Shuster asked me to write a life of Christ to go with those wonderful Giotto paintings, I was thrilled. But when they took me out to lunch to discuss the project, they said, “Now, dear, we see this as a children’s book.” I replied, “Wait a minute! You don’t think kids can cope with a life of Christ? You want to make it pretty? You want a book about a wimp? Then I’m not interested!” Then I played my trump card and said, “Remember, Simon and Shuster is one of the publishers who turned down A Wrinkle in Time because it was ‘too difficult for children.’ Would you let me write the book?” So they did. And I wouldn’t have written it differently if it had been marketed for 80-year-olds. I wrote the book that I thought went with the pictures and that was consis­tent with my own theology! And they did a magnificent job in producing The Glorious Impossible.

In writing, we have to be trueand true means factual. We have these silly ideas that chil­dren can’t cope. By and large, kids are much more able to cope with the truth than their parents and grandparents!

+ Madeleine L’Engle is the renowned author of more than 40 books, including A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the 1963 Newbery Award and A Ring of Endless Light, a Newbery-honored book in 1981. Her nonfiction works, such as A Circle of Quiet and The Summer of the Great­-grandmother, reflect her faith and her thinking on life. At the time of publication, Jeannette Scholer was the director of academic programs for the School of Theology, Barbara Eurcich-Rascoe  was the director of the Office of Women’s Concerns at Fuller Seminary, and the late Margery Corben was Assistant Registrar.