Almost as much as she loves One Direction, an adolescent girl loves a book series. There’s familiarity, a clear structure and plot progression, new titles to anticipate and collect. There could be dozen or more books, giving it the luxury of telling a long story.
Be honest. Maybe it was Sweet Valley High, maybe it was The Babysitters Club. Maybe Goosebumps or Harry Potter or Nancy Drew Case Files. But they were there, sitting proudly on your bookshelf, in order, not a title missing. They may even still be there, next to Twilight and The Hunger Games trilogy. I bear no shame: my favorite series from ages 11 through 14 take pride of place on my living room bookshelves. Sure, some were crap, but the best books stick with you – and may have more depth on rereading than your 13 year old self ever noticed.
More than that, they’re worth a revisit. Even the most committed long reader needs a break sometimes. So now that you’ve learned to cook dinner, grab a seat and join me on a Summer Series Reading Series. There may or may not be free personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut at the end!
If I were forced at gunpoint to create an honest, ranked list of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle would make the top five. (I would probably come up with the same list if I was asked less violently over gchat, but I’ve been catching up on Breaking Bad so I’m feeling dramatic.)
Unlike some authors, *cough*Francine Pascal*cough*, L’Engle’s female protagonists are compelling and real. She focuses on adolescent girls; imperfect ones, with glasses and messy hair. Like any teen girl, her heroines are simultaneously insecure and overconfident, stretching out for independence but still needing their mothers to tuck them in at night.
Her two most completely drawn young women are Meg Murry (in the Kairos series, or Austin family books) and Vicky Austin (in the Chronos series). Meg’s world is far more magical and traditionally sci-fi than the Austins, who, as the series title indicates, are locked into our normal space-time environment.
We meet Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, arguably L’Engle’s most famous book. Meg is awkward and prickly and endearing, externally unimpressive to everyone but her family (and equally gawky love interest Calvin O’Keefe):
“She looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror and made a horrible face, baring a mouthful of teeth covered with braces. Automatically she pushed her glasses into position, ran her fingers through her mouse-brown hair, so that it stood wildly on end.” (pg 7)
But this isn’t She’s All That; Hot Meg isn’t hiding under a pair of glasses. Meg carries her struggle to feel special and valued all the way to a point of (literal) cosmic crisis, when she realizes it isn’t genius or looks or being conventional that give her a place in the world:
“‘Mrs Whatsit loves me; that’s what she told me, that she loves me,’ suddenly she knew.
That was what she had.” (pg 207)
It’s her capacity to love and be loved that bring her meaning.
A few books later, as an adult, she’s figured out how to do her hair – “thick and lustrous and became her perfectly” – but the lesson learned in A Swiftly Tilting Planet is that sacrificial love truly transcends what “meets the eye”. (pg 12, 256)
L’Engle weaves this theme through the Kairos series as well. I jumped into these books midway through the series, and midway through my own adolescence. A Ring of Endless Light is a Newbery Honor book, and it juggles death, first loves, puberty, dolphins (!) and sibling rivalry rather effectively.
Vicky is a bit older than Meg, but she still stumbles. She’s not the beauty of the family, nor does she have a passion or vocation, nor any particular genius or talent. She spends the book wrestling to balance all the thrill of her first romance with the sadness of her last summer with her sick grandfather. But in the midst of death and confusion, she learns to pass through the suffering to choose joy and life.
“Vicky, do not add to the darkness…Vicky, this is my charge to you. You are to be a lightbearer. You are to choose the light.” (pg 326)
Perhaps it is the struggle with all these disparate themes that makes L’Engle’s books more compelling than run-of-the-mill teen romances (minus the dolphins. I couldn’t care less about dolphins. Sorry Vicky!). Her adult and teenage characters spend a good deal of conversation talking about faith, science, literature and music:
“What’ll it be this time?” Mother asked.
“Shakespeare,” Suzy said.
“Einstein,” John said.
“Could be the Bible,” Daddy added.
Grandfather came out with a paperback book. “It’s by Elie Wiesel.”” (pg 80)
The Austin family illustrates L’Engle’s idea of generosity both intellectual and interrelational. The Austin family is large, made larger by pets, relatives, family friends and new friends. There’s always a dinner place laid for an unexpected guest and a spirit of welcome and generosity pervades their conversations.
For someone like me coming from a more conservative Christian background, the questions and doubts L’Engle’s characters raise don’t come at the expense of faith but rather deepen it.
“Grandfather looked away from me and out to sea, and when he spoke, it was as though he spoke to himself. “The obligations of normal human kindness – chesed, as the Hebrew has it – that we all owe. But there’s a kind of vanity in thinking you can nurse the world. There’s a kind of vanity in goodness.”
I could hardly believe my ears. “But aren’t we supposed to be good?”
“I’m not sure.” Grandfather’s voice was heavy. “I do know that we’re not good, and there’s a lot of truth to the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”” (pg 66-67)
For L’Engle, faith is not about moralism or judgement. Love – Christian love – expands rather than contracts.
This expansive picture of love and its expression in the Austin family hit me at the right age, and it remains part of my overall vision for the kind of life I want to live. Though my own adolescent insecurity has faded, L’Engle’s series still resonate. When I think about her books, it’s the image of the Austin family at the dinner table, welcoming, discussing, serving, loving, that inspires me. How’s that, Wakefield twins?
Next up: fauns and Calormenes and magic rings, oh my!