Madeleine L’Engle is weirder than I remembered

by John Holbo on May 19, 2012

My books-for-kids threads have been good conversation starters so let’s keep it up. Zoe (age 10) and I have been listening to Madeleine L’Engle on audiobook. Listening to an audiobook while drawing is an excellent use of a Saturday afternoon. I remember reading The Time Quintet [amazon], I think when I was in 7th grade or so, and getting moderately tripped out. Then I got into Stephen King. Rereading – re-listening, whatever – I’m amazed by how weird they really are, as kid fare. How much weird religious-scientific exposition there is. Cherubim and mitochondria, making a sort of Episcopalian-psychedelic (Episcodelic? Psychopalian?) mélange. It’s like a cross between Harry Potter and Dante’s Purgatorio (no infernos, please, we’re universal salvationists.) Gifted kids of absent/highly-abstracted parents start out bewildered but get enlightened/spiritually-uplifted by weird alien/angels on the way to saving the world/universe.

We’re part way through A Wind In The Door, having finished A Wrinkle In Time last Saturday. Then last Sunday we went to see The Avengers – which was great! (did you hear?) – and Zoe was very excited that the plot was sort of similar. US government meddling with tesseract opens doorway to creepy alien forces beyond our comprehension across the universe, etc. Film was a bit more action-packed than the book.

Anyway, any Madeleine L’Engle thoughts? Religious sf (like C.S. Lewis.) Kid lit that bucks genre conventions, but that kids really like, proving that the conventions can be broken?



Area Man 05.19.12 at 7:00 am

I can’t remember which book it was, but in one there’s an explanation of how mitochondria work, which relied on something called “farandolae”, or something like that. Their dysfunction was making Charles Wallace sick. Of course, these things don’t really exist.

What I didn’t appreciate until many years later, when I was in grad school, is that the inner workings of mitochondria were a huge mystery back when Madeleine L’Engle was writing her books. Everyone knew they provided cells with energy, but no one knew quite how. It was the holy grail of its time. One of my professors lamentably told us of conferences where scientists would jump out of their seats and yell and scream at each other over the theories of membrane potential vs. substrate phosphorylation vs. other ideas. “Lamentably”, in that he missed those days, like there was nothing quite that serious that we’ve argued about since.

It puts L’Engle’s work in better perspective. Although the physical basis by which mitochondria provide cells with energy is a simple concept to us today, it’s easy to see how it was a window into something mystical back then.


Marcellina 05.19.12 at 8:14 am

How much weird religious-scientific exposition there is. Cherubim and mitochondria, making a sort of Episcopalian-psychedelic (Episcodelic? Psychopalian?) mélange. It’s like a cross between Harry Potter and Dante’s Purgatorio

I have never read any L’Engle, but that makes me think immediately of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”.


Phil 05.19.12 at 8:39 am

I read A wrinkle in time several times as a kid – I’m not sure its successors were published over here – and found it a bit programmatic (the Camazotz* sequence is like an extended ad for home schooling) but not particularly weird. Many years later, as a slightly depressed adult, I read The young unicorns and was thoroughly weirded out. A church in catacombs, in present-day New York? A Christian church? No, wait – a fake Christian church? I found it genuinely nightmarish, despite the Scooby-Doo plot wrap-up (although admittedly my mental state at the time wasn’t the cheeriest).

So I’m not at all surprised that her other work goes into this Charles Williams-ish “it’s fantasy… but perhaps it’s true fantasy…” territory. It’s a weird effect – oddly different from anything you ever get from Tolkien, who was as strong a believer as any of them.

*What a name. Camazotz. It almost hurts to type it.


dexitroboper 05.19.12 at 9:10 am

Not really religious, but with some of the same feel, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series is pretty cool. It starts with So you Want To Be A Wizard


andrew 05.19.12 at 9:50 am

I remember her, alright. As a kid who was raised in a devout Protestant household, reading about 2 brothers sent back in time by a machine in their basement (which their genius father – who is away helping the government – built). the 2 brothers find themselves back in the time of Noah’s Ark, and they are taller than all the locals but not as tall as the Seraphim (angels of God) and Nephilim (angels of Lucifer) who transform into an animal avatar (lions, snakes, etc.). If you guessed “Many Waters,” then you win a goldfish sticker!

It felt quite subversive at the time, almost as though I were reading forbidden texts like a Satanic Bible – which I guess my parents would’ve considered it since it was being heretical by fictionalizing Biblical stories.

Something about L’Engle’s book made me feel strange, almost as strange as reading “The Little Prince” – though I got the sense even at the young age when I read it that “The Little Prince” was trying to say something profound


Steve LaBonne 05.19.12 at 10:39 am

Something about Meg’s father always makes me think of the guy with the pipe in the alt-weeky comic strip Red Meat.


Adam Roberts 05.19.12 at 10:58 am

@4 ‘The Little Prince’ is trying to say somethign profound: ‘On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.’


Bruce Baugh 05.19.12 at 12:52 pm

I’ve got a great deal of love for L’Engle’s work, and still do.

Her memoir Two-Part Invention, about life with her husband and mourning his death, was a comfort and maybe a life-saver in the wake of my father’s death. It really helped to share the experience of grief with someone accustomed to epic flights of fantasy, now very forcibly grounded for a while.


hellblazer 05.19.12 at 1:25 pm

Only one I’ve read is A Swiftly Tilting Planet, a long time ago. Keep meaning to track down and reread; at the time, I hurried through it without really appreciating the off-beat take/style.


Sherman Dorn (Tampa) 05.19.12 at 1:37 pm

For several generations of children, L’Engle had several things simultaneously: a great sensawunda imagined universe, an amazing guide to the universe (Mrs Whatsit), an outcast protagonist young readers could identify with, and a plot with real evil and choices children just like the reader had to make. At the time of Wrinkle‘s publication in 1962, I think Meg Murry was one of the very few female protagonists in YA SF, and in many ways L’Engle helped create the category as a viable niche. The Wikipedia entry is probably best seen as a labor of love for many editors.


Shane Murphy 05.19.12 at 2:03 pm

As I got older, Susan Cooper and her five book Dark is Rising series replaced L’Engle. I loved how it mixed in Authurian themes with Christian and others I didn’t recognize (wikipedia says Norse and Celtic). George MacDonald was a predecessor of Lewis, and is called a less good writer but I think is a better story teller (albeit a bit young at times). His fantasy novels for adults I still love (and are great for kids I think).


nostalgebraist 05.19.12 at 3:21 pm

I recently re-read A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved as a kid. It was more moralistic and less well-written (in the sense of “well-written” I have now, as a grown-up) than I remembered, but I guess those are just endemic dangers to reading children’s books as an adult, and not necessarily counts against the book in particular. That said, about the writing . . . it was really startling to me how overly “scripted” the plot felt, how much it just consisted of magical helpers whisking the uncomprehending characters from one plot point to the next. Which is very efficient, I guess, and didn’t strike me as a bad thing as a kid because I hadn’t yet learned to get annoyed with choices that seem overly convenient for the writer. (The book’s influence probably explains a lot of the awful fantasy stories I remember writing as a kid, which tended to have the same “largely description-free whirlwind tour across time and space” structure, though of course not done nearly as well.)

The one part I actually remembered from my original childhood reading of the book was the scene where Meg recites the periodic table (among other things) in an attempt to resist IT’s mind control. That was awesome, and struck me (even as a kid, I think) as a nice subversion, since in a more clichéd version of this universe, rote memorization of scientific concepts would be the sort of thing your conformist overlords would make you do. But no, even Camazotz can’t appropriate the wonder of science.

One simple thing that’s great about the book is that it creates its own fictional universe that’s neither a simple extrapolation of modern science or a nostalgic rejection of it. (His Dark Materials did a similar thing.) It’s disappointing how uncommon that is among adult books, even these days. Are the bounds of genre less restrictive for YA/children’s books? My memories of childhood reading say yes, though it’s not clear to me why that would be the case. (Do writers imagine that children value novelty more than adults? That wouldn’t be such an unreasonable supposition, I guess.)


nostalgebraist 05.19.12 at 3:26 pm

That was supposed to be “bonds of genre,” but I guess “bounds” works too. What a lucky typo.


Tom T. 05.19.12 at 3:47 pm

Religious sci-fi with mitochondria likely will not seem unusual at all to generations growing up after Star Wars.


Peter Hovde 05.19.12 at 3:57 pm

I find the bigoted and reactionary elements of L’Engle (blue eyed saviors, evil brown eyed dictators, Muslim-baiting) less tolerable than those of Tolkein, because they are located in a version of out world.


Dick Mulliken 05.19.12 at 5:01 pm

A bit off the topic, but it reminds me of my eleven year self being totally terrified late at night alone reading H P Lovecraft. One of Lovecraft’s tricks was to combine his space creatures with Egyptian myths and with an otherwise quite normal New England town. All this gave a heft of verisimilitude to his creepy tales. By the time 40 years later I gave Lovecraft to my own kids it had all become quaint. No late night terrors for them!


t e whalen 05.19.12 at 5:34 pm

As a kid, I was into the Green Knowe books by L.M. Boston. Re-reading them as an adult, they still seem delightfully weird, with a hint of Christian fantasy.


Cranky Observer 05.19.12 at 5:38 pm

Kids love weird and scary stuff, and to a certain extent the more the adults around them think it is weird and bad the more they like it.



bianca steele 05.19.12 at 9:15 pm

I don’t think most people think of L’Engle as religious fiction–that is, she’s read by plenty of people who don’t read religious fiction of any kind. Lots of kids are required to read Newberry books in school, and A Wrinkle in Time is just so much more involved than most of those (for me and a few other good students in my fifth-grade class, it was the first more difficult fiction we’d read). Also, her fantastic books are never about Christians, in fact the characters seem to me to be unnaturally ignorant religion.

I’ve been thinking of posting something about her adult, “mainstream,” novels, especially the ones that use magic. In some ways, her views about magic seem to be the typical liberal ones–it was a primitive attempt to do science and was replaced by science, etc.–but not quite, and magic would probably be a less depressing topic than race or marital relations (there is a very overemphasized theme of wifely obedience, even in the face of truly bad behavior, that runs through the adult books, and it’s hard for me to look at the YA ones again after recognizing this). The Other Side of the Sun takes place in South Carolina, so Belle might find it interesting (if sidetracking threads to OPers spouses is permitted, and Belle doesn’t hate historical fiction about the KKK and voodoo).

Mari Ness conducted a re-read of the children’s novels at the site a few months ago.


between4walls 05.19.12 at 10:17 pm

Speaking of YA authors, sad to see that Jean Craighead George of My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves fame just died.

IMO the Time Quintet goes downhill after A Wind in the Door, which is, along with A Ring of Endless Light, L’Engle’s masterpiece. A Swiftly Tilting Planet is fun but not as good as the first two, and has the blue-eyed-good/brown-eyed-evil aspect that Peter Hovde mentioned. An Acceptable Time is eminently forgettable.

The other L’Engle books I recommend are A Ring of Endless Light (poetry and telepathic dolphins), The Young Unicorns (my absolute favorite of anything she wrote, featuring an ex-gang member re-learning why trust matters, a “blind child prodigy” who is a real, breathing character with frustrations and hopes and friendships, and as Phil said, a nightmarish church conspiracy), and The Arm of the Starfish (Calvin discovers how to regenerate limbs in humans, trippy religious allegory with an atheistic, Beethoven-loving Jesus-analogue, set in Fascist Portugal).

Avoid Dragons in the Waters and A Severed Wasp at all costs.

Other authors- Philip Pullman has a lot more in common with Madeleine L’Engle than C.S. Lewis. They both combine fantasy and theological speculation with a sci-fi idea and emphasize joy and talent and learning. For a ten-year-old His Dark Materials is a good place to start. His Sally Lockhart series is possibly even better but might be better for a twelve or thirteen-year-old.

Diane Duane’s Deep Wizardry and High Wizardry also have this quality, though most other books in the Young Wizards series don’t reach that level. High Wizardry has this transcendent moment where a nine-year-old science nerd uses Obler’s Paradox to fight evil. (“Light, Dairine thought, we need more….The universe stopped expanding.”) It also has some of the redemptive/universalist feel of L’Engle’s books.

C.S. Lewis had a deeper and more interesting religious fantasy than the Chronicles of Narnia, “Till We Have Faces,” but it isn’t for kids at all, but rather an adult meditation on how “each man kills the thing he loves”. It makes up for the “battles are ugly when women fight” moment in TLTWATW with a harrowing scene where the female protagonist kills a man in single combat and thinks afterward that she now knows she could have killed her abusive father and can kill her own vulnerability. I am honestly baffled as to why this book is not as well known as the Chronicles.


Sylvia 05.19.12 at 10:37 pm

I’ll second the Susan Cooper Dark Is Rising series. They are lots of fun and with plenty of good Arthurian/Celtic magic.

For more religious feeling, Elizabeth Goudge’s books for adults and children — Green Dolphin Country is a good one — are filled with mystical Christianity mixed up with a kind of English nativist paganism. Sometimes I enjoy the heck out of them and other times I want to drown her. I tolerated her — enjoyed, really — much more when I was younger.


Christopher M 05.19.12 at 10:45 pm

I loved the Wrinkle in Time series as a kid (1980s). I’ve only reread that one book since then, and I still thought it was fantastic. Her Christianity bothers me less than Lewis’s, because the whole thing is less a transparent allegory for the particular Christian story of salvation through Jesus (like the Narnia books, which I loved deeply as a kid but get annoyed by now) and more of a strange mix of old Anglo-Catholic mysterianism and the combination of post-nuclear terror and confident futurism I associate with 1950s–60s science.

I like how unabashedly intellectual the Murrys (Wallaces) are even as they’re having absurd cosmic adventures. I liked how, for ten or fifteen years after I read the books in third grade, I would still find myself learning something cool, in some fairly nerdy field or other, and flashing back to a phrase or reference in L’Engle that had resonated in my mind before I had any idea it was related to anything real. Farandolae, mitochondria, the Greek word ‘echthroi’, the tesseract (of course), Patagonia, cherubim, Blaise Pascal, the Rune of St. Patrick, the Sanskrit word ‘Ananda’ (Meg’s dog), and so on. I also found certain passages wildly, strangely evocative as a kid, in ways I couldn’t quite understand — like this weird, violent stream-of-consciousness bit: “[g]reen stems, sickly trickling ooze”.


Both Sides Do It 05.19.12 at 10:56 pm

I hope your C.S. Lewis reference is to the Out of the Silent Planet series, which is to the Narnia nonsense as Dune pere is to Dune fils


isaiah 05.20.12 at 1:56 am

I had a similar reaction just a couple of weeks ago: I was in the library browsing for a book for my daughter, and I paged through A Wrinkle in Time. I decided against getting it. Then again I don’t remember those things bothering me when I read it as a child.

On another note, I can’t help being amused by the “Recent Comments” list at the top of the webpage which says things like “isaiah on Madeleine L’Engle is weirder than I remembered”.


Belle Waring 05.20.12 at 3:17 am

I love historical fiction about the KKK and voodoo! That sounds great! Sign me up. We had real live voodoo problems when I was a kid, but no KKK problems. Or maybe my family kept them from me. (Cogitates briefly on things parents found perfectly appropriate for children). Nope, unless the Hell’s Angels we knew had a sideline in the KKK, but I kind of think they didn’t accept “hippies,” even racist hippies, and didn’t understand that the Hell’s Angels aren’t hippies anyway. Technically. Well…hmmm. I guess they were just hippies with motorcycles when you got right down to it! So they must have accepted hippies! Nonono, I remember, my parents weren’t hippies, and hated hippies, and hippies were a bunch of loser acid freaks from San Francisco in 1969 with dumb painted faces and no one liked them. So no one was a hippie, including the Hell’s Angels, even if some people were racist, especially the Hell’s Angels.

I agree on loving having a girl be the protagonist. I asked Zoe if Meg should have stayed and tried to love “It,” and freed it from itself, and everyone else. “NO!” As a kid I wasn’t so sure. But I had a little brother I liked to rescue, so I especially liked those books. Well, I had a little brother I wanted to rescue, at any rate. I also loved The Dark is Rising. My great recent triumph is getting the girls to see the virtues of…Enid Blyton! Island of Adventure! I hold no truck with the Secret Seven, and the Quarrelsome Quartet, and the Famous Five and so on. (Not that they don’t satisfy an Enid Blyton sweet tooth of an afternoon.) She lavished all her care on the adventure books, of which there are only 8 or 9. (As opposed to 400 or something). Thus, with their distracted professor Daddy, a Mummy outside whose door no sound may be made as she is resting, a yaya (just like an amah, but from the Phillippines) who is a lovely, wonderful person who takes care of them and irons the collars of their little Peter-Pan school-uniform shirts, and their newfound love of Enid Blyton, we are succeeding in raising our children in pre-War British Singapore. I’m not sure why, exactly, but here we are.


Belle Waring 05.20.12 at 3:22 am

Since they have English friends, they have a preëxisting understanding of the varying meals (supper, dinner, tea and so on) which so baffled me as a child, so that’s nice. I did understand about dinner and supper, because that’s the same in the South, but tea just threw me, and then they would be having a picnic too, and I don’t know whatall. A thermos of tea!! And biscuits and a bar of choc! Tinned peaches and pineapple! Food is endlessly fascinating to children, it is a good 50% of a children’s book’s success. Harry Potter really nailed this one.


Bruce McCulley 05.20.12 at 6:09 am

As a kid, I enjoyed the Wrinkle In Time series, but not nearly as much as the Narnia books, I think because reading L’Engle didn’t produce pictures in my mind the way reading Lewis did. (Of course, Pauline Baynes’ drawings might have had something to do with that.)


j.eel 05.20.12 at 7:52 am

If you think the first two books are weird wait until you get back to Many Waters. Uncomfortably crowded with temptresses and coercive fallen angels. I revisited the whole series about a year ago and I must not have finished that one when I was a kid because I would never have forgotten something so bizarre.


Belle Waring 05.20.12 at 10:31 am

I feel I need to amend my previous comments. They don’t have “a yaya” since that title is permanently reserved for the woman who helped take care of them for Zoe’s first 9 years. In any case it’s more a thing to say like “Miss” so you don’t rudely call an adult by their bare first name. They currently have an “auntie,” mostly. This is the polite thing to say to adults or to people much older than yourself anyway, the equivalent of “Ma’am” or “Sir.”


RSA 05.20.12 at 1:15 pm

I really enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time, though I haven’t re-read it as an adult. One passage still sticks with me, in which the characters are talking about fighters on the side of light (goodness, or perhaps enlightenment? I don’t remember). Jesus is mentioned first, but then Leonardo, Shakespeare, Buddha, and a dozen others. That struck me, as a kid raised Catholic–there are many paths to doing or being good.


Steve LaBonne 05.20.12 at 1:47 pm

Peter Hovde @15, you must REALLY hate C. S. Lewis…


Steve LaBonne 05.20.12 at 1:53 pm

I really enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time, though I haven’t re-read it as an adult. One passage still sticks with me, in which the characters are talking about fighters on the side of light (goodness, or perhaps enlightenment? I don’t remember).

Both, I think- L’Engle of course grew up in an age when it was considerably easier to be confident that the two always go together, and retained it even after living though so many events that have made such confidence a lot harder to come by. (That passage really stuck with my 13 year old self, as well.)


Jameson Quinn 05.20.12 at 5:01 pm

If you’re into that stuff (and I was as a kid, though it’s totally not appealing once you outgrow it) then check out Zenna Henderson. (I haven’t thought of her for several decades, so I may be misspelling that.)


bianca steele 05.20.12 at 5:07 pm

In Lewis’s favor (I think), he’s erudite in a way L’Engle isn’t. L’Engle is erudite in the way you’d expect of a woman who attended excellent European boarding schools and lived all of her life among educated people. Lewis can draw more deeply on the literary tradition. But pernicious as the standard paint-by-numbers girls’-fantasy “rescuing” theme is, IMHO, girls-with-swords doesn’t touch as closely to the issues girls actually face.

Though Meg’s issues didn’t seem as universal as I’d remembered, last time I looked. Comfortably middle-class girls with near-genius abilities in math who fail their math courses because the work is too easy, and who get into fistfights, reflects the way some girls think about their lives, but paints them as worse than the reality.


bianca steele 05.20.12 at 5:09 pm

Of course, Lewis, L’Engle, and Le Guin were all together on the library shelves. Konigsberg was one shelf up.


Rachel Anderson 05.20.12 at 5:24 pm

L’Engle was my first author that I tired to read everything she ever wrote — once I figured out that all her characters fit into one related universe (helpfully schematically laid out in the 1st edition hardback of _Many Waters_) I was hooked. Female protagonists who were sort of outcasts and had an active fantasy life — these were the things that were magical for the 10-year-old me ever so long ago.


Emily 05.20.12 at 6:38 pm

Belle, I remember loving the Adventure books as well :)
Talking about English off-centre-ish books I loved as a kid, there’s Oscar Wilde’s short stories – esp. The Selfish Giant which my cousins’ had in a wonderful illustrated book – and Richmal Crompton’s William series was enormous fun – I always wanted to try liquorice water.


Randolph 05.20.12 at 8:32 pm

There’s a thread of whifty mysticism through American Christianity, which I think L’Engle is part of. I read a bunch of it when I was an omnivorous-reading teenager. There is such a neat quality to a universe with an easily-legible moral order.

dexitroboper, #4: Duane acknowledges L’Engle as an influence, especially on So You Want to Be a Wizard. See here.


Hob 05.20.12 at 9:06 pm

Mari Ness has been writing a re-read blog for L’Engle’s entire body of work which I highly recommend. It’s very thoughtful, giving full weight to criticisms on both writerly and ideological grounds while still being passionately appreciative.


Belle Waring 05.21.12 at 1:45 am

I think actually hippies were a bunch of loser acid freaks with painted faces from San Francisco in 1967. (Quite unrelatedly :) Now I want to read A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but I must say I have zero idea what it was about. And I refuse to listen to an audiobook. Too sloww needs moar wordz!!! Really. One of these days I’ll come around, and John and I can laugh and look back on it, hey, remember all those years you refused to listen to audiobooks, even when you had a migraine and the alternative was noise from the nursery schools across the back alley? Hahaha, I remember that too you big silly. It’s like when I was so sick I liked the new Bon Iver album (February or something).


Witt 05.21.12 at 2:02 am

The link in 33 is very good; thanks, Hob.


LeeAnn 05.21.12 at 2:41 am

We haven’t gotten into Enid Blyton, despite now living in India where every bookstore has essentially an entire wall of her books; maybe we chose the wrong ones to start with, as the kids were unimpressed (and growing up in the middle south of the US, I was entirely unaware of her until I moved to Asia). However, I want to put in a pitch for E. (for Edith) Nesbit. We have read a lot of her stuff together out loud at bedtime (The Enchanted Castle, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet) and the gender and racial anachronisms notwithstanding (really no worse than the Narnia books, and doesn’t encountering that sort of thing lead to the most interesting conversations with one’s kids, anyway?), there is an Edwardian briskness to her story-telling that makes it a great pleasure to read aloud, especially if you like doing voices, and some great set pieces. Belle and John–I recommend them highly for the girls.

I got Felix Wrinkle in Time last year, and he was curiously resistant to it, but recently said that he’d gotten around to reading it and really liked it. Now I want to reread it, since I have an almost hallucinatory memory of reading all of her books, one after the other, barely surfacing for air, and feeling at the time (was I 9, 10, 12? can’t remember….) that they were the best thing I’d ever read.


JanieM 05.21.12 at 3:01 am

Belle — If I’m in the house and can read a book I do, and if I’m in the car I have other audio preferences. IOW, I’m not a big fan of audiobooks.

But once, when I was too sick to sit up in bed (vertigo, awful stuff), I listened to Prodigal Summer on tape, read by Barbara Kingsolver herself. I don’t know if she is or would be your cup of tea, but Prodigal Summer is one of my “reread every few years” favorites (much more so than Poisonwood Bible, which seems to be the book of hers that gets the most hype). Listening to her read it herself was magical.


David 05.21.12 at 3:16 am

What’s with the gratuitous hippie bashing? 1965 through the early 70’s would be a more accurate time frame for those worthless hippies in any case.


David Moles 05.21.12 at 4:12 am

As I recall A Swiftly Tilting Planet was about trying to make sure Patagonia was (had been?) settled by the good branch of some Welsh clan rather than the evil branch. Possibly with a lot of back-and-forth between the good future and bad future? (Or good present and bad present? Or good more-recent-past and bad more-recent-past?) It was all very confusing, but I have a clear memory of Good Welshman and his counterpart Evil Welshman. Maybe they were brothers? Anyway, at least it taught me where Patagonia was.


Emily 05.21.12 at 4:48 am

Has anyone read The Diary of A Welsh Swagman? He built lots of the gutters for the town where Henry Handel Richardson used to live at the Post Office for some time. He was a good Welshman I believe.


Christopher M 05.21.12 at 5:16 am

De gustibus etc., but I have to say the newer paperback editions sure seem ugly. Here is the Dell Yearling version of Wrinkle I read. It seems better, but that could just be nostalgia. No question the original hardback edition has a gorgeous cover, though.


Christopher M 05.21.12 at 5:22 am

And thanks to bianca & hob for the link to Mari Hess’s writing about rereading L’Engle. The Wrinkle piece was a good read and I’m looking forward to the others.


Belle Waring 05.21.12 at 12:41 pm

David, the gratuitous hippie-bashing is on the part of my parents, who vociferously deny ever having been hippies despite the fact that I was conceived in the back of a VW van roving through California. They were members of a commune run by Dennis Hopper! Honestly. I maintain that they were hippies and should be proud of it so what the hell, but they’re prejudiced against hippies. They went punk rock later. They have a hang-up, man.


Sylvia 05.21.12 at 12:49 pm

Lee Ann — E. Nesbit stories are wonderful. In a similar vein are the Edward Eager books — Half Magic, Time Garden, Knight’s Castle. They’re not religious — at least I don’t remember that at all — but wonderful stories with strange and magical happenings. Wiki calls them “contemporary fantasy” but that doesn’t capture the pure sense of fun and possibility that his books have, at least for me.


KCinDC 05.21.12 at 1:06 pm

I read and enjoyed the “Time Quintet” when it was a trilogy. I was barely aware of the newer books.

The mention of E. Nesbit reminds me of “Half Magic” by Edward Eager, about children who find an amulet that half-grants wishes. Nesbit’s books were recommended in the story, though I never tracked them down.


Phil 05.21.12 at 2:10 pm

Edward Eager always struck me as someone who’d set out to ‘do’ E. Nesbit in modern (and American) dress; I went off him in a big way after The Time Garden (not recognising half the historical references didn’t help).

I believe you need to read some E. Nesbit – at least the Phoenix and the Carpet and the Treasure Seekers – if you’re going to have an imaginatively fulfilling childhood. Or adulthood – that works too.


Peter Hovde 05.21.12 at 2:45 pm

See also Nesbit’s great horror story “Man-Size in Marble.”


del2124 05.21.12 at 2:55 pm

I went on an Amazon binge in my 20s and bought all of the books in the Wrinkle series (even the later ones, which were just about the family and not really as good). A Swiftly Tilting Planet was always my favorite, though frankly the book was a probably not the best of the first series (Wrinkle, Wind, Planet, Many Waters).

Also have long wanted to write fan fiction in which Charles Wallace is actually the back story to the life of Charles Murray (Bell Curve). The spelling is different, but he’d be about the same age.


LeeAnn 05.21.12 at 4:00 pm

We’re obviously going to have to get some Edward Eager. A major motif in the Nesbit books we’ve read is the magical wishes, objects and creatures never working quite as anticipated–certainly a kind of “half magic”–resulting in wonderful, funny or scary (and sometimes all three at the same time) situations that the children have to figure out how to get out of.


Matt McIrvin 05.21.12 at 4:23 pm

Tom T.: My immediate reaction to the hated “midichlorian” dialogue in The Phantom Menace was to assume that George Lucas was ripping off Madeleine L’Engle’s farandolae. The word even sounded like “mitochondrion”.

I think L’Engle’s fantasy, with its science-fictional and anti-authoritarian elements, was probably a part of what prompted me to dabble in exceedingly vague religious belief for a short time in my preteen/early-teen years.


jm 05.21.12 at 5:33 pm

How about “The Phantom Tollbooth?” That was another truly original world, that seemed to me to have some of the same wonder as the L’Engle books.

Loved “Wrinkle in Time”. “Many Waters” was truly weird — book of Genesis cosmology, angels, tiny elephants, disrobed adolescents, strange forms of evil.
L’Engle was a great talent.

As a kid, I like “Half Magic” — just a great concept, and hilarious at the time. Re-read it a few years ago, and what stuck out was how much life for kids has changed — back then they were on their own much of the time, could take a bus from town to town for a nickel, etc.


Susan of Texas 05.21.12 at 7:58 pm

Margery Sharp’s Miss Bianca books.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder–the children in her fantasy books are more realistic than in L’Engle’s, who I slowly found annoying as I grew older and tired of her beautiful, gifted, special children. They are spooky.
Mary Norton’s books–Bedknob and Broomstick, and The Borrowers
I second Eager and Nesbit
Maybe Ruth Arthur later; her books can be very scary but are beautifully sensitive
Alexander Key


Christopher M 05.21.12 at 8:01 pm

Half Magic and the other Eager books were a lot of fun as a kid. The idea of ‘half magic’ is pretty conceptually stimulating—start with a wish, and then think about what it could mean for it to be half granted—and I also remember (hopefully accurately!) loving how one of the later books seemed to be about an unrelated set of children, but as you read on it turns out some of them are the children of the Half Magic kids, who now appear as grownup characters. (Grownups who happen to be especially accommodating of their own children’s magical adventures, of course.)


Christopher M 05.21.12 at 8:06 pm

Regarding books for smart kids anyone want to talk about Harriet the Spy?

‘I want to know everything, everything,’ screeched Harriet suddenly, lying back and bouncing up and down on the bed. ‘Everything in the world, everything, everything. I will be a spy and know everything.’

‘What do you do, child? Listen at doors?’
‘Yes,’ said Harriet.
‘Well, I never,’ said the cook. ‘I think that’s bad manners.’
‘Ole Golly doesn’t. Ole Golly says find out everything you can cause life is hard enough even if you know a lot.’


Matt 05.21.12 at 11:27 pm

Harriet the Spy made a great impression on me as a child. Harriet’s life as child of upper middle class parents in early 1960s New York was alien to me but accepted without a quibble, just like Huckleberry Finn’s environment or children traveling by tesseract.

Harriet inspired me; I was undaunted by the misfortunes she suffered. I wasn’t very good at spying but tried to be sneaky in other ways: I made my own invisible ink mixtures and took them to school for exchanging secret messages. I kept a secret journal like Harriet about my classmates but can’t recall having anything cruel or particularly insightful to say about them. I also wrote a program on the family Commodore 64 for encoding and decoding substitution ciphers, so I could swap secret messages (by floppy disk!) with my best friend, who also had a Commodore.

As a child I never understood the relevance of publication dates in the fronts of books or authorial viewpoint between the pages and built a strange picture of the world. Russia, also called the Soviet Union, was a place run by Communists and the head or king Communist was the Czar. In Communist countries the sky is always cloudy, everyone wears gray overalls, and nobody ever smiles because Freedom is illegal there. The Great War was another name for World War II. I thought that huge space colonies were already in operation and I had just overlooked them in the news, since publications talked about what Man would be doing in Space by the 1980s (hey, that’s right now!).


John Holbo 05.22.12 at 6:11 am

Hi LeeAnn!

Thanks for comments, everyone.

I think “Good Welshman, Bad Welshman” would make a good boardbook for very young readers. Possibly some fabric and texture samples could be incorporated, a la “Pat The Bunny”.


bianca steele 05.22.12 at 1:11 pm

I’m pretty certain I started writing poetry after I read A Ring of Endless Light (probably not appropriate for Zoe yet).

I can’t share the hate for A Severed Wasp. It’s a perfectly readable mainstream novel (also for adults). It maybe suffers for not knowing whether it wants to be high-brow (Grace Paley?) or something like Jodi Picoult. As Peter Hovde notes, the paternalistic racism (like the weird yet highly moralistic ideas about sex) stands out more clearly because it’s so close to our own time. It also could be seen as anti-clerical, like The Young Unicorns–incidentally, those two are also the only two books IIRC that are set in Morningside Heights, though the cathedral end of it, not the university, and in the days before gentrification had apparently reached quite so far south of 100th Street.


bianca steele 05.22.12 at 1:11 pm

s.b. 110th St.


Belle Waring 05.22.12 at 2:18 pm

I also say hi LeeAnn! See, they’re not so bad! (CT commenters: Don’t scare people. [Points the fingerbone of scorn.])


kharris 05.22.12 at 6:52 pm

No, no, no. “Psychopalian” is a state of mind that results from listening to an Alaskan form of political speech.


David 05.22.12 at 9:11 pm

Thank you, Belle.


IM 05.23.12 at 8:29 am

I did read a Swiftly Tilting Planet and was a bit irritated by the power of the right ancestry. I liked A Wind in the Door, especially the original idea to venture inside mitrochondria. Generally speaking I liekd and cuold even identify with Meg.

That said, did anybody else found child prodigy Charles Wallace super-annoying?

A sort of pre Wesley Crusher, only worse.


Nuns 05.23.12 at 11:30 am

Belle, the bit in your comment where you said “Food is endlessly fascinating to children, it is a good 50% of a children’s book’s success” reminded me of the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, which I quite enjoyed in grade school. I couldn’t tell you exactly what age level they would fall at, though. They were fantasy novels about anthropomorphic animals centered around an Abbey, although I don’t recall any religious content. Who knows, though, I wasn’t raised religious, so I completely missed the Christian bent to Narnia when I read it as a kid. Anyhow, one of the things I remember most about the Redwall novels were the absurdly long and detailed descriptions of the many dishes served at various feasts. There are 23 books in the series now, apparently, so he kept writing long after I aged out of them. I’m tempted to see how the ones I read then stand up to rereading, though.


The Dark Avenger 05.23.12 at 5:56 pm

I think this is a good juvenile that is almost religious SF, as it has creatures that are almost god-like:

James Blish’s The Star Dwellers (1961) is a quality sci-fi novel (for younger readers) easily comparable to some of Heinlein’s juveniles. The plot is straightforward/predictable yet still engaging. Of course, Jack, our seventeen year old hero, saves the day! Unlike the best “alien encounter” sci-fi novels which convey a certain sense of convincing “reality,” The Star Dwellers demands the suspension of disbelief — but that’s not an issue since the short novel is clearly for younger readers.

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