The Madeleine L'Engle You Never Knew
Photo: Charlotte (left) and her sister, Lena Roy, with their grandmother in the Cathedral Library of St. John the Divine, ca. 1977. Used with the cooperation of Crosswicks, Ltd.
In conjunction with our March issue all about reading and literacy, Parent & Child is counting down the 100 greatest books for kids. The idea for a 100 greatest list had been on our minds for some time. When we learned that 2012 marks the 15th anniversary of the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day (March 2), we got rolling — and counting!
This year also marks the 50th year of publication of the Newbery Award-winning classic A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, which places at number 3 on our Top 100 list. We spoke with Charlotte Voiklis, L'Engle's granddaughter, about her relationship with her grandmother and the time they spent reading together in her secret Ivory Tower. She recalls her grandmother's rigid schedule of turning off her lights every night at 9 p.m., which she has since implemented with her own children. "At 9 p.m., I don’t care if their homework isn’t done — they get in bed and read," she says. "I’ll write a note excusing [their unfinished homework]."
P&C: What was your first reaction to reading A Wrinkle in Time?
Voiklis: I don’t have a strong memory of the first time I read it; it feels like I’ve always known the story. I reread [A Wrinkle in Time] regularly, as it was such a part of my grandmother and our relationship. Even as a grandmother, she was so much Meg, with her passion, enthusiasm, quickness, and vulnerability.
P&C: Your favorite book of your grandmother’s is...
Voiklis: I remember upsetting her once when I said that The Small Rain was a favorite of mine. That was her first novel, but she wanted her last book to be her best, to be people’s favorite. I also loved The Summer of the Great-Grandmother because it’s a kind of new territory and The Arm of the Starfish because it shows there is life after marriage.
P&C: What memory of your grandmother do you most connect with?
Voiklis: The memory of her discipline and the rhythm of her craft. She didn’t choose to write — she just wrote. She didn’t have a choice. Every day, she wrote, took a bath, read a mystery [book] and her Bible, and went to bed at 9 p.m. When I think of my grandmother, I think of how much she looked forward to methodically closing the shutters in her bedroom and spending time with her books.
P&C: Did you ever share that designated reading time with her?
Voiklis: She often read out loud with my sister and me. I loved her house in Connecticut, which included an office over the garage that we called The Tower. It was self-deprecating humor to say she was going to her Ivory Tower to write. Only a privileged few were allowed in there. My sister and I went through her manuscripts.
P&C: What lessons do you think your grandmother wanted people to draw from A Wrinkle in Time?
Voiklis: She wrote to please no one but herself. I think that’s true of the best writers. A Wrinkle in Time offers so much, depending on what you’re receptive to. One of the messages that resonated for me was that your parents aren’t going to solve your problems. Over the years, as people try to make the movie, they realize how varied a message the book really offers.
P&C: Do you have children of your own? What are your favorite books to read with them?
Voiklis: My son is 12, and my daughter is 11. We’re a family of readers, but my daughter was a late reader. There is such a push on early literacy today that parents panic if their children aren’t reading by early kindergarten. But having a kid on the lower end of the spectrum — I just had to take some deep breaths. Now, she’s caught up; she just finished reading The Hobbit to herself.
P&C: Are your children very familiar with Madeleine L’Engle’s works?
Voiklis: We listen to my grandmother’s books during our regular eight-hour car trips to Ohio. But we still have designated time for reading: half an hour before bedtime, as a way to calm down. That’s one of the disciplines I picked up from my grandmother.
P&C: What do you think is the most important lesson for children today learning to read?
Voiklis: Teachers and librarians need to give kids plenty of space and variety. Every child learns to read in their own time, in their own way. It’s like food; just keep offering it. One day, [your child] might not like mushrooms — but then, suddenly, he does.
P&C: Your advice to a child who is struggling with reading?
Voiklis: Read aloud, listen to audio books, and experiment with lots of different genres. It was Harry Potter that ultimately got through to my daughter.
5 Little-Known Factoids about Madeleine L'Engle
1. She loved swimming. She had a pool in her house in Connecticut and swam every day.
2. She loved to walk her dog.
3. She wrote in her Ivory Tower above the garage.
4. She was a terrific piano player. She didn’t play in public, but had a piano in New York and a keyboard in her tower for when she needed to clear her head.
5. In my eyes, she was famous for her hot fudge, her spaghetti sauce, and her salad dressing. While she was not always a successful cook, she was a fearless, creative one.
More From Our 100 Greatest Books for Kids:
- Our March cover star, J.K. Rowling, on finding time to read
- Mo Willems (Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!) on getting past writers' block
- Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret) on advice to kids who want to write
Megan Hess is a digital editor at Parent & Child.