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People Who Died

Mrs. Whasit

Madeleine L'Engle

Okan Arabacioglu

By Michael Byrne | Posted 12/26/2007

"A straight line is not the shortest distance between two points." So realizes Madeleine L'Engle's classic character, the at-turns obnoxiously and charmingly precocious Charles Wallace Murry. It would take a kid to accept something like that, someone who hasn't been around long enough to be convinced yet that there isn't more than meets the eye to the world.

Kids grow up, of course. Somewhere in the drawn, odd years that lead into being an adult, imagination learns to quiet itself, looses its sense of necessity. Science-fiction writers, above all others in words, are those who never lost it. And you can't help but feel a ping of jealousy when a science-fiction writer dies--death must mean something different. You have to hope, anyhow. You have to hope that L'Engle (born Madeleine L'Engle Camp in New York in 1918) thought of skipping across time with her most famous literary creation--the one that's put God knows how many millions of preteen imaginations into hyperdrive since--the tesseract.

It was the idea that drove the author's most popular books, beginning with 1962's almost-never-was A Wrinkle in Time, an epic package that takes a lot of the stuff kids think about--school, boys, being weird--and wraps it in an adventure built of witches, dimension-hopping, mind control, intergalactic conspiracy, quantum physics, and--why not?--communism. And if you were a standard-issue white male in 1959--the year L'Engle completed Time (after brief forays into theater and adult lit)--you'd probably take it, more than anything, as a feminist tract. Charles' sister Meg was a heroine at a time when "heroine" was still a subversive word.

As ridiculous as it is now to think that the now award-saddled book (a Newbury Medal is among them) was rejected for publication some 26 times, just trying to describe the book in the span of a couple sentences is like packing a tennis ball into a thimble. You sort of have to see those 26 publishers' sides.

A Wrinkle in Time, now in its 67th printing, got its expected lambasting by the jittery Right, no matter that it was rife with anti-communist and religious overtones. (It even quoted the Bible.) L'Engle's was likewise the wrong kind of religion. In being a Universalist--you know, we're all saved--she may as well have been an atheist. L'Engle recounted to Newsweek in 2000, the opponents "were Christians, mostly, and that made me very sad." A Wrinkle in Time is also saddled with the honor of being the American Library Association's 22nd-most-banned book.

L'Engle, while working as a librarian in Manhattan and raising three children, wrote two more books in the Time series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet and A Wind in the Door, similarly deft balances between sci-fi and morality (secular and otherwise)-slash-humanity. Concurrent with the Time series, L'Engle was leaving an imprint with a separate family-centric series--the Austins this time--dealing with an epic, but always very literal, battle between good and evil, presented with intergalactic boundary bending swapped for relatively constrained ideas like telepathy.

L'Engle never stopped writing, producing more than 60 books between her first in 1944 and her death on Sept. 6, crossing more and more into the realm of autobiography and overt religion. Her final book is set for publication in 2008.

Few voices in young adult literature, or modern literature at large, did more to combat narrow-mindedness than L'Engle. In the same Newsweek interview she put it very clearly: "You have to take truth seriously, even when it expands beyond the facts."

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