A Feature Review of
Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices
Reviewed by Denise Frame Harlan
Madeleine L’Engle suggested in Walking on Water that a piece of art can ‘know more’ than the artist who created it. A well-told story, for instance, may prove to be far greater than the sum of its parts. L’Engle had a way of writing into wonder, writing into a universe bursting with amazing events, picturing a world truer than simple truth. Nothing with L’Engle was ever boring. Is it any wonder, then, that the woman herself seemed larger than life to so many people?
Perhaps no one appreciates the parts and sums of stories better than Leonard Marcus, who explores children’s literature through series of personal interviews. Marcus forms a collective vision more powerful than one angle of sight, in previous titles about fantasy writers and creators of picture books. This peculiar sub-genre fits perfectly with the breadth of voices who form Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices. Through 51 interviews, Marcus selects conversations with L’Engle’s fellow writers, family members and friends, to sketch a portrait of an extraordinary and complex woman.
In 1962, Madeleine L’Engle penned A Wrinkle in Time, a ground-breaking novel about teen protagonists saving the world from darkness. Another writer quipped that L’Engle wrote “children’s books for adults,” using rigorous language and concepts from quantum physics and cellular biology. Although L’Engle initially struggled to find a publisher, A Wrinkle in Time won the 1963 Newbery prize, and L’Engle penned two more volumes in a loose trilogy about Meg Murray and her brother Charles Wallace. Readers don’t just love Meg Murray as a character: readers sink seamlessly into Meg Murray, no matter how improbable her adventures. Even in a story populated by winged horses and guardian angels (who masquerade as witches, as a sort of an inside joke), something about Meg’s struggle rings true.
The boldly spiritual content of A Wrinkle in Time caught readers off-guard. L’Engle embarked on a grueling schedule of book tours and lectures, as both a literary celebrity and spiritual celebrity. Readers’ interest inspired L’Engle to publish a series of journals about her day-to-day family life, including Summer of the Great-Grandmother, a chronicle of her mother’s descent into dementia. She spoke to thousands, year after year, and she published more than 40 volumes of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In its 50th year of publication, a new edition of A Wrinkle in Time includes an introduction by Katherine Paterson and a brief biography of the author, with photos.