Talking Shop: Five Reasons Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘YA Books’ Succeeded

Those with even a cursory knowledge of my literary preferences will recall my fondness for the late Madeleine L’Engle

My first brush with L’Engle came when I picked up a beat-up paperback copy of A Wrinkle in Time in fourth grade. At that time, L’Engle’s books expanded my consciousness, creating in me a yearning for more–spiritually, creatively, and academically.

C.S. Lewis once credited the acclaimed Scottish author George MacDonald with “baptizing his imagination.” Throughout my childhood, L’Engle had a similar effect on me. I felt so indebted to Madeleine L’Engle for her numinous, soul-searching prose, that I named my only daughter “Madeleine.”

A week or so ago, I decided to pick up a book by L’Engle which I haven’t previously read. The book is titled The Arm of the Starfish. I was hesitant, because the book is filed squarely in the “Young Adult” section of the library. 

I’ll admit my bias. I tend to dislike most books that can be categorized as “YA.” for reasons that will soon be apparent. In short, I find most books in the genre lacking–both in substance and in any modicum of literary merit.
It’s an established fact that L’Engle hated when critics panned her work as “juvenile.” She famously quipped, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

Still, I approached the book with a little trepidation. I didn’t want to return to an author that I cherished so deeply for so many years and become ultimately disappointed that I’d outgrown her. I feared being disillusioned.

Ultimately, out of respect for L’Engle’s perspective, and her phenomenal track-record in my reading history, I decided to give this YA-novel a chance. 
What I found, to my relief, was a tightly-knit, cosmopolitan spy-novel that did anything but disappoint me. 

As I set the book down, I reflected a little on why L’Engle’s YA worked where so many others have failed. How is it that her books stood up, not only to the test of time, but also to the test of the audience aging?

I came up with the following five reasons:

1.She never shied away from “grown-up” topics.

In The Arm of the Starfish alone, L’Engle deftly navigates topics as complex as nationalism, the thalidomide disaster of the late 50s and early 60s, the Spanish Inquisition, and deep-seated theological issues. 

In the hands of a less capable writer, such a diverse survey of topics would quickly turn glib and disingenuous. L’Engle manages to explore these topics with aplomb, always rejecting an easy explanation.

2.Conversely, she didn’t resort to shock tactics. 

Without slinging mud at any particular authors, “YA lit” (writ large) often acts as a taxonomy on “edgy” or “controversial” subjects, such as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, etc. 

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing any of these topics for a younger audience, it’s often handled in a clumsy way, detracting from any real message and instead promoting controversial content for the sake of controversy. 

L’Engle’s doesn’t shy away from pushing the envelope, but it never feels contentious for the sheer purpose of bolstering sales.

3. She whetted the appetite of her readers.

Madeliene L’Engle was a walking, talking Liberal Arts education. Her works are replete with allusions to science, medicine, history, philosophy, mythology, linguistics, literature, theology, art, and music. 

In The Arm of the Starfish, L’Engle alludes (among other things) to the Tallis Canon, Jackson Pollack, and the Greek myth of Diana and the Golden Apples. She utilizes Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” as both a secret-code and a theme interwoven throughout the book. The subject-matter of the book delves into the topic of marine-biology: both real and speculative.

In every instance mentioned above, regardless of the topic, L’Engle instills in her readers the desire to learn more. Inspiring your audience to dig deeper into the humanities is a hallmark of great literature.

4. She never condescended to her readers. 

L’Engle had an impressive command of language, and she didn’t let the fact that she was writing for a young audience dissuade her from putting it to use. In The Arm of the Starfish alone, she writes in four languages: English, conversational Spanish, tidbits of Portuguese, and Koine Greek. 

Most of the words and sentences she employed can be understood through context clues, but in some examples (such as the “Phos Hilaron” hymn in the original Greek,) she requires her readers to do a little research outside of the pages of her own work to uncover the meaning and origins of the text. 

L’Engle never felt the need to “dumb down” her vocabulary on account of her younger audience, either. She used words like “echinoderms,” “anagogical,” “desultorily,” and “porcine.” 

She gave her younger readers the benefit of the doubt: if they didn’t know a word, they could look it up in a dictionary.

5. She weaves all of the above nimbly into a well-told story.  

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all of the above points are wrapped up into a well-plotted, breezy narrative. The net effect of reading one of her novels is that you ruminate deeply while simultaneously enjoying a great-read. Or, as she puts it while alluding to Frost, “your avocation and vocation become one.”

In so doing, L’Engle crafts dense, imaginative, sprawling concepts into tightly-packed, well-resolved stories. Regardless, even, if her books include the “YA” moniker. 

The Second Greatest Commandment

(by Daniel R. Jones)

He wasn’t bleeding by the side of the road
to Jericho, or ransacked
by a group of marauders

or bruised
or naked
or left for dead.

He just needed a ride home from work.

He didn’t bother asking.
He’d already asked a couple times this week.
His eyes did the asking:

“I know you’re a Samaritan,
but will you be good?”

But my last cup of coffee and my Aleve
were wearing off in tandem,
and my wife and son were seated, already,
around some quickly-cooling Stroganoff.

Father,
brother,
forgive me.

Veering

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I’ve grown fond of the front seat
where I’ve seen you sitting countless nights
ringing out raindrops from a Frogg Togg,
muttering obscenities about the cold.

You’ve sat in that same seat
flicking cherries off the end of your Newport,
singing along to Styx on the stereo
humming through the lines you don’t know.

It was only when the frequency cut out that I realized
just how off-key you were.
You always drove in a straight-line.
I never sensed you were veering.

Your friends warned me you were a fiend.
They said to stay away.
But still we cried together
when your rib disowned you.

She had a sneaking suspicion:
her hero in league with dealers of heroin.
You swore she was overreacting.
But as I watched you drive
I noticed you were veering.

When you lost custody of your son
the part-time prophets
came out of the woodwork.
Even amateur oracles prophesied your death:

He’s a junkie, they said.
He’s riding high on a horse’s back.
And behind the wheel,
I trembled at your veering.

But tonight’s the night
you’d crash the car.
You came through the driver’s side door
with a full arm and empty eyes.

Slurred words and blurred vision.
The smell of burnt rubber.
Passed out at the wheel,
you can’t hear me yelling.

When you come to,
you won’t even admit
you were veering.

The “Check Engine” is on.
You’re running on fumes,
the seatbelt hanging uselessly by your side.
Still, you insist on the driver’s seat.

I’m in the passenger seat
waiting
as always
to take the wheel for you.

Namaste: To Err is Human (creative non-fiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I feel guilty calling their posture “impish,” but in several mythologies imps carry transcendent, supernatural knowledge, so maybe it isn’t such an insult?

There were six or so of the women, tiny and ancient, crouching outside our apartment on the daily, sucking down scented smoke and blowing rings that would put to shame the pool-hall regulars down the street. They were clad in Kurta Suruwal: traditional Nepalese dress, the colorful patterns contrasting beautifully with their tanned, weathered skin that resembled leather in so many ways. Their eyes were deep and friendly, constantly inviting you to conversation, but their tongues were unversed in English, making dialogue next to impossible.

Deepak, whose name means “lamp,” shed some light on these women, our neighbors. Like himself, they were refugees from Nepal. Several, in fact, were family members, sharing his inter-generational two-bedroom sardine can. 

To make their day,” he instructed me, “simply place your hands together, bow your head, and say ‘Namaste’: ‘I bless the divine in you.'”

In a former life, before he was driven from his home, Deepak used to be a professor. But when his political allegiances put him in danger, he was forced to emigrate from his homeland and work in a dog food factory on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. In Nepal, he had fortune, status, and political sway. Now, he had nothing. As such, he always seemed to me a microcosm of Cleveland itself. The two were meant to be together, though both acknowledged one another only begrudgingly.

Pain, to him, was now measured on a scale of one-to-his-exile. We spoke often while the remnants of daylight slowly receded below the horizon. We’d watch his children push each other in shopping carts across strewn shards of glass. In such poverty, makeshift toys can be fashioned from just about anything. 

Sometimes Deepak would say wistfully, “You never can know what to expect out of life.” He was over trying to change the world. He’d decided it was enough to keep the world from changing him. He just wanted to minimize the damage.  

Sometimes, I would ask myself: how can being human feel so akin to the divine?

I could feel it: the crumbling brick building wanted to be rid of me. When I stepped out onto my balcony at night, sometimes I almost heard in its creaking a message just for me. “You don’t belong here, Daniel,” it seemed to tell me. “I am not your home.”

In Cleveland, there’s an expression, “Success in Cleveland is making it out of Cleveland.”

My mind was made up. I’d head home to Kalamazoo, Michigan, the city where I was born. 

I was about to experience 258 miles of sheer success.

In a year’s time, I had landed a new job out of state. I only had a week to pack up my apartment and be on my way. My Nepali friend promised to help me move out on our last day. It came as a relief to know I’d have some assistance amidst brown boxes, packaging tape and a sense of overwhelming, unnerving haste. 

But early on in the morning, Deepak received a phone call that pulled him away. I was forced to lug a queen-size bed down three flights of stairs with the aid of only my wife. After our U-Haul was jam-packed and ready to pull out of the parking lot, Deepak was still nowhere to be found. 

Perhaps moving so quickly felt too familiar.  But in his unwillingness to return, I never got to say goodbye to him.

Deepak, namaste.

I forgive the human in you.

The Sheen in Dirty Things

(by Daniel R. Jones)

From a kitchen window, I saw it,
my sudsy hands soaking
in a sink:

Pearl white, a silky sheen of a thing,
the taut, intricate patterns glistened in the sun.

And just like the first recorded question of God,
it struck me.
Who told you spiderwebs were dirty?

Becoming Apparent

(by Daniel R. Jones)

My son was it. I saw him peek.
I watch the children hide and seek.

When was it last, I seized the day
instead of watching children play?

They sing, “Olly, Olly, oxy!”
Is there joy, save through proxy?