How Madeleine L’Engle’s Most Popular Book Almost Didn’t Get Published #writing

How Madeleine L’Engle’s Most Popular Book Almost Didn’t Get Published #writing

You have to write the book that wants to be written…if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.

Recently Amazon US announced that The Hunger Games had outsold Harry Potter as its all-time bestselling series—not just in the young adult category.

Both Hunger and Harry feature teenagers who must battle evil and make decisions that affect the lives of others. Katniss Everdeen takes on a murderous system and Harry Potter defeats a deadly sorcerer.

Yet twenty-six publishers rejected one of my generation’s most beloved books because (quoting the author) it “dealt overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children’s or an adults’ book, anyhow?”

It seems laughable now, the idea that teenagers can’t fathom evil or that adults don’t want to read about their struggles. But it has been fifty years since A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007) almost wasn’t published.

Madeleine’s Early Years and Marriage

From the moment she learned to write, Madeleine entertained herself with stories, poems, and journals. Not surprisingly, her teachers thought her slow because she hated traditional school subjects.

At age 12, her family moved to the Alps because her father, Charles, suffered lung damage during World War I. Her parents, absorbed with Charles’ illness and each other, drove her to a Swiss boarding school one morning, introduced her to the headmistress, and left. Madeleine had no idea what was happening. “I shook hands with the matron, and they vanished.”

But the school encouraged her creativity and gave her confidence. She returned to the States and excelled in high school. “We had a Miss McBee, who was mad about the theatre. The teachers thought I was bright, and I was elected class president. It was extraordinary.” And bittersweet, for her father died in her senior year.

Madeleine went on to Smith College and graduated with honors. She moved to Greenwich Village and pursued acting since she thought it would be an easier way to make money than writing. There she met Hugh Franklin, her future husband, as an understudy in Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard.

Hugh and Madeleine moved to a dairy farm in Connecticut to raise their children. They bought an old general store and revived it. Madeleine gave birth to a daughter and son, Josephine and Bion. Hugh and Madeleine also adopted a little girl, Maria, when her parents—their best friends—died within a year of each other.

And Madeleine never gave up on writing:

I must honestly admit that helping to build up, participate in the life of a small, but very active community, run a large farmhouse and raise three small children is the perfect way not to write a book. I did manage to write at night. Writing is, for me, an essential function, like sleeping and breathing.

Madeleine conceived A Wrinkle In Time in 1959 on a cross-country vacation. She writes that “we drove through a world of deserts and buttes and leafless mountains, wholly new and alien to me. And suddenly into my mind came the names, Mrs Whatsit. Mrs Who. Mrs Which.”

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The Story Behind A Wrinkle In Time

A Wrinkle In Time tells the story of Meg Murry, an imaginative and rebellious teenager, whose father goes missing while working on a government project called The Tesseract (akin to a wormhole). Meg, her little brother, and a neighbor must pass through a time tunnel to battle the alien totalitarian regime that has kidnapped their father. Mrs Whatsit and company become their other-worldly guides.

Madeleine completed A Wrinkle in Time in early 1960, at age 42. After those twenty-six rejections, her agent returned the manuscript and Madeleine put it in a drawer.

I received many rejection letters and I used to put the kids to bed and take my dogs and walk them down the long dirt road in front of my house and cry my eyes out. Yet I couldn’t stop writing and I kept on writing. I had no choice. I might never get published, but I had to keep writing.

After a decade in the country, the family returned to New York so Hugh could revive his acting career (he eventually became a well-known soap opera star). Madeleine found a job teaching grade school.

At Christmas, Madeleine threw a tea party for her mother. One of the guests knew John C. Farrar of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and arranged for Madeleine to meet him. Although his company didn’t accept children’s books at the time, Farrar loved the novel and ultimately published it.

Wrinkle won the 1963 Newbery Medal, awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children’s book.

Madeleine_lengleA Wrinkle In Time Was Banned in the 1990s

A Wrinkle In Time shows up in the top-25 Most Banned Books of the 1990s because its magical and scientific elements seemingly challenge Christian precepts. This shocked Madeleine, a devout Episcopalian.

First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, “Ah, the hell with it.” It’s great publicity, really.

(I love that bit of ironic profanity.) Madeleine wrote over fifty books in her lifetime, including plays, prayer books, poetry, and nonfiction. Most have overtly spiritual themes.

At age 74, against her family’s wishes, she trekked across Antarctica. The journey resulted in a spiritual memoir titled Penguins and Golden Calves, “a captivating discussion of how opening oneself up to icons, or everyday ‘windows to God,’ leads to the development of a rich and deeply spiritual faith” (from the jacket).

From being an imaginative, misunderstood, sometimes neglected child, Madeleine transformed into a late-blooming author who inspired a whole generation. Writer Anne Lamott spoke for many of us recently:

A Wrinkle in Time saved me because it so captured the grief and sense of isolation I felt as a child. I was 8 years old when it came out, in third grade, and I believed in it—in the plot, the people and the emotional truth of their experience.

Madeleine L’Engle’s journey affirms that, as she put it, “Life is worth living; the adventure is worth taking”—at any age.

Have you read A Wrinkle In Time? Does it hold up in today’s young adult market?

Sources

29 Responses

  1. Cathy Chester
    | Reply

    Thank you for this marvelous review and biography of a fascinating woman. I am so glad you brought it to my attention. Wonderful.

    • Debra Eve
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      You’re welcome, Cathy. Just checked out your site and subscribed. Love what you’re doing over there!

  2. Lindsay
    | Reply

    A WRINKLE IN TIME came rushing back when I read this marvelous post. Repeated rejections of something that goes on to great success are so common that they are cliches. What makes the gatekeepers so clueless over and over?

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks and so true, Lindsay! I need to compile a list of successful books that got rejected umpteen times (actually, I’m sure someone has already done it). It still amazes me that the idea of a “cross-over” science fiction/fantasy book for kids would get such flack. Times have certainly changed.

  3. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra, you keep posting about late bloomers that I already love, have read, enjoyed, admire and aspire to be. Yes, I’ve read A Wrinkle in Time and several others of her books. I did find it spiritual and uplifting … but what I came away with was the feeling that L’Engle created a wonderful fantasy that children of all ages can enjoy.

    Love her determination and that she knew even if she was not published, she would still “need” to keep writing … the true meaning of a vocation. Thanks so much. You’ve cheered my Saturday morning 🙂

    • Debra Eve
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      You always say something so insightful, Florence. Yes, the true meaning of vocation! That’s it. And we’ve both found ours. Thank you!

  4. David Goldman
    | Reply

    I can’t believe that I’ve never read this book. Of course I know of it, but I will now download it to my Kindle reader and read it, even at my advanced age. Then I’ll make sure my teenagers start to read it, too.
    Thanks again for sharing your later bloomer stories. It really inspires me to get going in my later blooming writing life. And this is just the kind of book that I like to write.
    Thanks again.

    David Goldman

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I started re-reading it for this post, and was still captivated. Madeleine was reading quantum physics at the time. I love books like this, too, that sit at the intersection of different genres, but don’t think I could write one. So, yes, you needed to get going 🙂

  5. Kathy
    | Reply

    What a marvelous author! I need to check out her work, especially “A Wrinkle in Time.” It gives me hope for my desire to write a great novel. Thanks for reviewing her life and her inspiration.

    • Debra Eve
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      You’re welcome, Kathy! There’s always hope. Actually, more than hope in this day and age. A lot of hard work and some help self-publishing!

  6. Wendy Krueger
    | Reply

    I remember the story growing up and how popular it was along with the Narnia Chronicles. My first job in high school was working at the public library in the children’s book section. A Wrinkle in Time along with her other books were always popular.

    It is fascinating to learn she trekked across Antarctica at 74. I have never heard that story before.

    • Debra Eve
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      What a great first job, Wendy! I’d never heard of her more spiritual books either and am curious about them. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Lynette M. Burrows
    | Reply

    I love this, Debra. I read Wrinkle as a child and absolutely adored Meg. I wrote a post about how the book was so vivid to me that for years I thought I’d seen it as a movie. I also had the great honor of meeting Ms. L’Engle. She was just what you’d imagine her to be. Thank you for this post. It brought back some wonderful memories.

    • Debra Eve
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      You met her, too! How exciting, Lynnette. I understand the book was made into a movie, but it didn’t translate well (not surprising). Thanks for stopping by!

  8. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    I LOVED A Wrinkle in Time, and read all of the books in the series (along with some of her others). Most have Biblical themes to them. When I was a grad student as UConn in the mid 80s, I actually had the privilege of meeting Ms. L’Engle, and she signed my book (A Swiftly Tilting Planet). Among the many things I loved about the experience of meeting her was that, when she was getting ready to sign your book and asked your name, she would give you kind of a searching look, and then inscribe the book with the name of a character in that you reminded her of.

    Me? I was Ananda. Yep…the dog. Ah, well. 😉

    • Debra Eve
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      How exciting you met her, Kathy! As for Ananda, the names means “great joy” in Sanskrit. I’m sure that was what she was thinking 🙂

  9. khaula mazhar
    | Reply

    One of my favorite books. I think it definitely holds up today too. Thank God that book didn’t stay in the drawer!

    • Debra Eve
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      I can’t agree more, Khaula. As Lindsay mentions below, what’s with the gatekeepers? I’m about 1/2 way through reading it for the first time since I was in gradeschool and am still completely entranced.

  10. I loved A Wrinkle in Time! I haven’t read The Hunger Games, but I can’t imagine them being better.

    • Debra Eve
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      I honestly couldn’t get through Hunger Games, Jennette. I couldn’t relate to the protagonist, Katniss, in the first several pages. I think that’s what makes A Wrinkle in Time different. Meg has more universal appeal. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Diana Beebe
    | Reply

    Debra, this is one of my all-time favorite authors. I learned quite a bit about her here. Thanks!

    • Debra Eve
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      You’re welcome, Diana. So glad you enjoyed it!

  12. Jean McQuillin
    | Reply

    My co-authors and I (@myhouseourhouse) are following you on Twitter so I stopped over to see your site. How wonderful to find this post about one of my favorite childrens’ authors! Both of my kids loved her books and especially A Wrinkle in Time. How sad that her parents dropped her off at boarding school at age 12–but clearly she was resilient and adventurous, just like my favorite of her characters, Meg. I’ll be back to check in again!

  13. B
    | Reply

    Nice to remember that book. In my youth, how I dearly loved those works that could tilt the axis of my world a few degrees at a time! My precious levers for the slow roller that I am! (My slant on the concept of late bloomer.)

    (Of course, a very modest and gradual slant. We get there when we get there.)

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Are you a writer, B? Lovely way with words. I might have to quote you sometime! So glad you enjoyed the piece.

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