Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

“Duel” Perspective: Spotlight on Madeleine L’Engle and Genre

Welcome to Little Wonder’s very first “Duel” Perspective post. The idea is that I debate with a guest book blogger on the subject of a particular book and/or author. I’m deeply in debt to Enbrethiliel from Shredded Cheddar for helping me develop the idea, and for participating in the opening debate.

Here you’ll find both my thoughts and Enbrethiliel’s on the subject of Children’s/YA author Madeleine L’Engle (best known for A Wrinkle in Time). If you’re interested in L'Engle, check out my reviews of her individual novels and come back to read part two of our debate, which will be posted next week.

Madeleine L'Engle, Science Fiction and Fantasy

Enbrethiliel’s take: I'm one of those readers who became a Madeleine L'Engle fan as a child because of her Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her Time Quintet was to me what C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia were to millions of other children: a magical introduction to the seemingly-ordinary, but really wonderful world we live in. As a child, I could feel her fascination with tesseracts, mitochondria, virtual particles, and soon became hungry for more. While still in high school, I started reading non-fiction books on the hard science – physics being my favorite.

But the scientific and fantastic elements of L’Engle’s novels could not have drawn me on their own; what really sets these books apart from other Adventure Lit for teens is that L'Engle casts everything into a greater cosmic context. (Again, a comparison with Lewis seems apt.) Her “Kairos” books (A Wrinkle in Time, etc.) and her more realistic “Chronos” novels (Meet the Austins, etc.) are both thoughtful, deeply emotional, and existentially open-ended series, despite their other significant differences. In all of her novels, we get a peek into certain workings of the universe, but they don't clear up the great mysteries of life for us any more than real-life scientific discoveries solve the mysteries of religion. In these stories, science resolves the immediate conflict – finding the missing father, healing the sick boy, preventing a nuclear war – but it is simply one weapon in the greater war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I'm kind of a sucker for good vs. evil on such a cosmic scale, so this conflict is what gets me in the end.

Little Wonder’s take: I love Children’s Fantasy Literature and I grew up reading (and re-reading) The Chronicles of Narnia, so I definitely agree with Enbrethiliel that a comparison between Lewis and L’Engle’s work is quite fitting. I actually didn’t start to read L’Engle’s works until I hit college, though, and took a Children’s Literature course. Consequently, The Time Quintet doesn’t have the same nostalgic appeal for me as it does for many readers and I have come at the series with a more critical eye. I also have to admit that while I’m a huge fan of Children’s Fantasy, I’m a much less avid reader of Science Fiction. Since L’Engle’s novels contain a lot more “Sci-Fi” than The Chronicles of Narnia, I couldn’t seem to get into the swing of The Time Quintet with as much unmitigated enthusiasm.

Unlike Enbrethiliel, I’m not a “science person,” but I think that my issues with L’Engle’s Science Fiction have less to do with my dislike of physics and more to do with my expectation that Sci-Fi should be at least somewhat credible. Perhaps I’m being too literal, but I want some actual Science in my Science Fiction. I’m not talking about the tesseracts and all the time travel stuff that L’Engle invented – that I can buy as Fantasy, for whatever reason. It was all the discussion of mitochondria and farandolae in A Wind in the Door that really got to me. First of all, mitochondria are very real components of individual cells – something that we all learn about in high school biology. But Charles Wallace starts telling his classmates about mitochondria, his kindergarten teacher scolds him for making things up. Despite the fact that a kindergarten teacher wouldn’t be teaching those concepts, she would have at least heard about them… mitochondria themselves aren’t Fantasy. Farandolae, however, are completely fantastical – something L’Engle invented, as far as I can tell. Something that I had a hard time buying, to be honest – probably because we know so much more about mitochondria now.

But I’ve been chastised by more than a few book bloggers and L’Engle fans to remember that when The Time Quintet was first published, all this was pretty revolutionary stuff for Children’s Literature. I suppose we didn’t know quite as much about the science itself, the makeup of mitochondria, etc. in the 1970s. So I’m willing to admit that L’Engle did a fairly good job of inventing a entertaining story. The Magic School Bus element to the story, when Meg and her companions shrink and enter Charles Wallace’s mitochondria, is pretty cool, even if it’s not really my thing. If only she connected the dots between everything a little bit better – I often feel like L’Engle’s “science” would be more believable if she could explain it a little bit better. A lot of times, I think I’m disappointed because she falls back on the line that “we just can’t understand these things because our human minds cannot fathom them…” But if you’re the author, it’s your job to fathom things better than the rest of us.

Enbrethiliel’s last word: Lauren's critique reminds me that another thing I love about L'Engle is how eclectic she is: her stories are made up of very varied themes and ideas. She wrote about what fascinated her; and I doubt that there was anything in creation that didn’t. Yet it does not follow that all those elements work well together outside of her own mind, in a text that must stand alone. I'm reminded of the old saying, "Please all and you please none": L'Engle has something to draw everyone in . . . but also something to turn everyone off. A Wrinkle in Time, for example, has been criticized by some for being too overtly Christian for a Science-Fiction book, and by others for being too overtly neo-pagan for a Christian book. In my own case, while I'm happy to suspend disbelief as I read her fantasies about distant planets, mitochondria, and time traveling unicorns, I echo Lauren's wish for credible storytelling when it comes to L'Engle's religious elements. Completely made up Science Fiction I will happily swallow; completely made up Scriptural Fantasy I will choke on. And since each book in her Time Quintet is an insoluble mix of both, even their status as old favorites can’t keep the cognitive dissonance of a reread from reaching symphonic proportions!

Stay tuned for part two of our “duel”: we will be discussing Madeleine L’Engle and Feminism, plus the novel An Acceptable Time.

If you are interested in participating in a “duel” with Little Wonder in the future, please contact her at littlelaurenalise@gmail.com. Some authors that I'd like to spotlight in the future include: C.S. Lewis, E.L. Konigsburg, Philip Pullman, Lois Lowry, and L.M. Montgomery. But I'd be open to suggestions and willing to "duel" on the subject of a single novel, as well.


  1. +JMJ+

    This was really fun, Lauren! Thanks again for asking me to do this with you. =)

    What I didn't get to say in my Last Word was that I love the irony you point out in the scene in which Charles Wallace's teacher berates him for making up farandolae. In the context of the story, she is wrong and he is right--but in the greater context of Science Fiction, we readers stand to accuse L'Engle of doing the same thing!

    By the way, the first time I read A Wind in the Door, I was convinced farandolae were real. It wasn't until I really had to study cells in high school Biology class that it finally hit me that L'Engle made the whole thing up. =P And now I wonder how many other readers had a similar surprise awakening!

    PS--Yes, I know I still owe you a take. I'm getting to it right now! =P

  2. Hi, Lauren! Nice to meet you! I'm a bloggy friend of E's and also a big L'Engle fan.

    I started reading the Time Quintet around age 12 when it was only a trilogy. I'm a science and fantasy geek with a tremendous ability to suspend disbelief so was in hog heaven. So nothing profound to add but I find both ya'lls perspectives interesting.

    E: don't choke but I have no problem with scriptural fantasy-- I enjoyed 'Many Waters' and was thrilled the twins finally had an adventure.

  3. @Lesa: Welcome! It's interesting how L'Engle can spark so much debate... I'm not a huge fan of Many Waters, in fact. It was my least favorite of the Time Quintet (except for An Acceptable Time, which I couldn't finish). It's isn't the scriptural fantasy, though -- in fact, I think that may be one of my favorite things about L'Engle IN THEORY. I think that in theory, it's such a cool concept to have stories that work with both biblical stories/concepts and scientific principles, etc. I just don't think L'Engle carries it off very well for the most part.

    Perhaps I should invite you to "duel" on the subject of Many Waters! :-)

  4. I did read Acceptable Time-- I rememeber checking it out of the library but remember nothing about the story-- guess it is safe to say it is my least favorite. I'll reread it sometime to refresh my memory.

    A duel over Many Waters sounds intriguing but I'm probably not the best candidate-- I'm more on the shallow side and don't analyze or think too deeply about books. E is your girl for Many Waters-- she could delve into the scriptural fantasy stuff. Of course, if you just want an opinion from someone who likes it and don't mind a bit of fluff... ;o)

  5. +JMJ+

    I think what delights me the most about Many Waters is the twins' getting their own adventure at last. I'm totally with Lesa on that one! But then it just got so weird in the middle . . . =S

    What really killed it for me, I think, was Yalith falling in love with both twins. If Many Waters were one of L'Engle's more innocent novels, that twist would probably be very sweet. (Remember the implication that during Noah's time twins hadn't come into being yet. I have a feeling that in Yalith's mind, Sandy and Dennys aren't actually two different people.) But this novel is, as Lauren pointed out in her review, quite sexual. We might not get a sex scene between one married couple, but it is very strongly implied; L'Engle doesn't cut to another scene while they are making eyes at each other, but makes sure we know for certain that they don't just hold hands under the stars and talk. And we know that both sets of angels in the story desire mortal women--although only the Nephilim actually act on it.

    I find it really off-putting when Sandy, Dennys, Yalith, and the angel who is in love with her are all standing together in the end, and she kisses both the twins very deeply and then goes off with the angel to where her relative innocence will likely be preserved for eternity. I mean, What was that???

    (Answer: the hint of some very kinky sex--which is all right, because Yalith doesn't know it's kinky--but only a hint because she is not to remain on earth, anyway, but goes off to Heaven to be a virgin forever?)

    Anyway, I'm still glad that the twins got their adventure . . . but this book would probably have been better if Charles Wallace had been the one to go back in time and fall in love with Yalith.


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