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Madeline L’Engle’s novel Camilla (titled Camilla Dickinson when first published in 1951 and recently reissued) features a bright and passionate fifteen-year-old who presents us with the essential question of the YA genre — how will this girl survive the emotional chaos of adolescence? In fairy tales, this same question is more logistical — how will the princess escape supervision long enough to exit the tower, descend into the forest, and head for the village?
Camilla is narrated by just such a princess, one who lives with her parents in a New York City penthouse. The novel was published long before there was a young adult genre as we know it today, but it contains all the elements of the classic YAs of the late twentieth century — a journey out of childhood, a hypersensitive girl, a pace providing ample time for deep reflection. The reader participates in a clean, well-documented metamorphosis, wisely told by a girl who embodies the most cherished aspects of twentieth-century female adolescence — at least in literature: hope, compassion, and a fearless, unflinching honesty.
These qualities were true of the protagonists in many of the forbears of the genre — Frankie in Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding, Molly in Jean Stafford’s The Mountain Lion, Cecil in Rumer Godden’s Greengage Summer — but there is a profound difference between these early coming-of-age novels and Camilla, and I believe that it stems from L’Engle’s technique of tracking Camilla day-by-day, hour-by-hour, as she struggles to understand what is happening to her. Her journey is both epic and microscopic. The novel covers just a few weeks in Camilla’s interior life and is intensely focused on the minutiae of her days — a concentrated, claustrophobic time of adolescent upheaval. This original technique prefigured the YA genre that would begin to flourish in the next decade.
Another element that connects Camilla to the modern YA genre is L’Engle’s obvious love for her protagonist. Camilla narrates as someone relaying the events in her life to a listener with deep affection for her. This makes her exquisitely reliable. She is both admittedly vulnerable and unapologetically passionate, sometimes on the very same page. She is also a girl scientist! Her fascination with the heavens creates a wonderful juxtaposition — the discipline of astronomy; the importance of identifying and naming things as a way of feeling part of the universe — coupled with her more spiritual quest for a guiding star. With both perspectives in full operation, she searches for the deeper meaning of her life. She wants to be around people who are more fully alive than her parents — boys her own age who talk passionately about war and death and what it means to have a soul. She purposefully connects herself to new events and situations. She wants to feel everything, even — what is surely coming soon — the heartbreak and disappointment of first love. She is fearless about being hurt. She wears her heart on her sleeve. She is fully alive in her emotions.
* * *
Such a bittersweet read! As I reread the book, Camilla’s voice took me back to some of my own girl narrators, young sages who decades ago responded to their parents’ ineptitude with more sadness than anger, more compassion than contempt. And much like Camilla, these fictional girls still believed that a proper romance could soften the cruelties of adolescence; they trusted that the right boy would come along if they were patient and careful. They were hopeful. Camilla is open to the possibility of becoming a finer, more self-aware person, now that she is no longer a child. She believes in her inner beauty. She values her own transcendent girl-ness, trusting its power. I remember that perspective. I believed in it and rode it like a wave after the publication of my first YA novel, The Bigger Book of Lydia (1983). It fueled my writer’s voice for two decades.
But the world of teenagers has changed. Thirty years after the publication of The Bigger Book of Lydia, the girls have come out of their towers. They may still be the smartest and the most forthright people in the village, but they are not happy. They often hide their disappointment and anger. If they are unusually sensitive, or especially perceptive, if they feel too keenly the messages of the culture, they will find relief in all manner of self-abuse, including cutting and starving themselves. These girls are skeptical of romance as an antidote, or a way to become more whole. They are wary, as they should be. They are confused, as they must be. They will not be overprotected or restricted. But the forest is a dangerous place, and the village beyond is not much better, not if a girl is complicated, opinionated, unconventional. Not if she has a chip on her shoulder. Not if she has a few tattoos or visible piercings. Not if she is loud. Not if her hair is blue.
* * *
In Camilla, the author describes the blossoming of Camilla’s sexuality, her intense longing for something deeper than friendship, and her curiosity about both romantic love and physical attachment. In this state, she falls in love with Frank, the brother of her best friend, a complicated boy, deeply philosophical and equally searching—just the sort of boy a girl like Camilla would be drawn to. Her feelings are returned, and the resulting relationship is very intense and sensual without ever becoming sexual. Not that Camilla doesn’t know about sex or understand its power; her own family has been torn apart by an affair her mother has had with a younger man. Despite this, Camilla savors the preliminaries of a real romance. She loves Frank’s voice, his seriousness; she is thrilled to hold hands with him. Their conversation is electric, full of mystery. Why did he say that? What did he mean? When will I see him again? What does he think of me? L’Engle captures the way time stands still between two young people who are kindred spirits, equally attracted to each other.
Camilla’s attraction to Frank leads to a more radical movement away from her parents, and this movement echoes the fairy tale motif — the girl who must leave a place of safety and isolation (tower, cellar, locked room), sometimes boldly, sometimes in stealth, in order to become a woman. This element in Camilla is not surprising given L’Engle’s deep appreciation for fairy tales and her extended use of their patterns in her eventual books for children, but it is especially strong and apropos in this novel of the 1950s. The reader can quietly cheer for Camilla in escape mode, wearing her red beret (a symbol of sexual adventure) and leaving her ineffective parents behind.
There is no sense, no underlying message, that the author feels that sex between these two young people would be morally wrong. Rather, like many writers of the 1940s and 1950s, L’Engle is more interested in the challenges to identity that leaving a sheltered state bring. The novel moves in and out of the realm of myth and fairy tale, where explicit sex is unnecessary. In fact, Frank disappears without ever having kissed Camilla. Yet they have shared a remarkably powerful connection—Camilla as the star gazer; Frank as her brooding, wandering prince.
* * *
I remember a long-ago conversation with my sister while we were still young women, and before I had written a novel of adolescence. We swore that we would not forget, if and when we had our own daughters, the power of first love. And I did not so much forget it as I was uneasy writing about it — the mother in me perhaps. I did not want to encourage my readers to enter that place of obsession and treachery and, yes, sometimes ecstasy, without having a clear way out. And I did not know yet, as a writer and an adult woman, how to faithfully re-create the misery and confusion of my own early sexual experiences. For these reasons, I was very well-suited for the phase of young adult literature that I came up in, an era of sensitive and articulate girl narrators who wanted romantic connection without the complications of having sexual intercourse. In love with love, yes. Sexually curious, perhaps. But sexually active, never.
Such a sensible approach! In my novels of yore, I could comfortably celebrate the innocence of these trysts. I could create girls, and also boys, who were longing for a partner, something beyond friendship, certainly, but also with the understanding that they were not ready for sex and did not need it.
Imagine. Young women who are strong in their innocence and unwaveringly hopeful about what is coming — their unfolding sexual lives.
In the final page of Camilla, our star gazer is back in her New York bedroom, studying Betelgeuse, a star in the constellation of Orion. Frank is gone, and she has turned to astronomy in her grief. She has learned many things. She has endured many disappointments. She is back in the tower, but no longer a child. She is looking up at the stars, intact and unharmed. It is a good place for her. She will stay there a little while longer, preparing for whatever comes next without regret or shame. Then she will resume the journey out.
Jennifer Lee, the co-director and screenwriter of Disney’s hit film Frozen, has signed on to pen the script for a film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’sA Wrinkle in Time.
Longtime Hollywood veteran Jim Whitaker will serve as a producer. At the moment, no director has been hired to oversee this project.
Here’s more from Variety: “Published in 1962, Wrinkle in Time was one of Lee’s favorite novels as a child, and she impressed Disney executives with her take on the project, which emphasizes a strong female-driven narrative and creatively approaches the science fiction and world-building elements of the book.” Who would you cast as Meg Murry? (via Time)
So I’m at a lovely Little Brown librarian preview earlier this week and the first special guest star of the day turns out to be none other than Daniel Handler a.k.a. Lemony Snicket. A resident of San Francisco, I wasn’t sure why he was in town. Turns out, he was on Rachel Maddow’s show talking about his recent Occupy Wall Street piece that had been making the internet rounds. Maddow says that he’s a “cultural hero of mine” and then later that she is “dorking out” being in his presence. The interview is great in and of itself, plus you get this fun bit at the start about what you do when the police have confiscated your generators.
Of course if I’d known he was in town I would have tried to hook him into saying hello at the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival festivities. Hosted in my library I’ll be blogging about it rather soon. It was rather epic, I have to say. Everything from a children’s musical about the birth of the Newbery Award to kids singing the plot of The Westing Game to Katie Perry’s “Firework” (a song that seems to haunt Mr. Kennedy wherever he may go). Of course we ran out of time so we never got to show this final video. I present it to you now because it’s rather brilliant. As Ira Glass imitations go, this has gotta be up there:
This next link is here only because Travis at 100 Scope Notes spotted it first. According to Reuters, the Japanese have brought The Magic Tree House books to life on the screen. Apparently Mary Pope Osborne has always resisted film adaptations but the filmmakers so wowed her that she gave them the rights. The result pairs nicely with that recent Borrowers adaptation, also out of Japan:
In other news, Newbery Honor winner Kathi Appelt recently interviewed Caldecott Award winner Eric Rohmann about his latest hugely lauded Halloween tale Bone Dog. Perhaps I should have posted this before Hal
Today marks the 50th anniversary of a children's book classic, A Wrinkle in Time. To celebrate this milestone Farrar, Straus and Giroux (who published the book 50 years ago) have released gorgeous commemorative editions with the original hardcover and paperback jackets and new extras that include an introduction by Katherine Paterson and an afterword by author Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughter.
A Wrinkle in Time is as relevant and captivating in 2012 as it was in 1962, and it's incredible to me that such an iconic story began with a random thought during a cross-country vacation, "...the names Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which popped into my grandmother’s head, and she told her three children—twelve, ten, and seven—that she would have to write a book about them..."--from the afterword [PDF].
Many prominent authors have been influenced by Madeleine L'Engle, including Judy Blume. Blume was interviewed for a book about L'Engle (titled Listening for Madeleine) coming out in the fall, and we have an exclusive excerpt, a sample of which is below. You can find the rest of the excerpt here (under More to Explore).
"Madeleine and I really bonded over the issue of book banning. Her books were being challenged all over the country. They were being challenged—and I love this and have used it in every speech about book banning that I’ve ever given—for teaching “New Ageism” to children. I always say that I can guarantee you that when Madeleine wrote her books she had never heard of New Ageism. The attacks on her books made her absolutely furious. She was beside herself, not just because her books were being attacked, but because any books were being targeted in that way. We would go out and do TV shows together in defense of banned books. An evening news show might have a segment on the censorship of children’s books. This was during the 1980s. She was so elegant and so down-to-earth, and some of her answers were so funny, as much as to say: Why are you guys so stupid? Why would you be asking questions like this? She never actually said those things, but it was absolutely clear what she meant. I just loved her."--Judy Blume in an excerpt from Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices.
A Wrinkle in Time has been read, loved, and shared, by countless readers over the last 50 years, and I'm certain that trend will continue. This anniversary inspired me to re-read the book for the first time in decades and I fell in love with the words and characters all over again. Those of you who adore this book as I do will understand when I say that I got a little bit giddy when I saw the photo posted below, and if A Wrinkle in Time is one of the unread classics on your list--treat yourself to an amazing read. --Seira
I love the nostalgia of rediscovering books with my daughter I had nearly forgotten from my childhood. I remember her exact expressions (of laughter or surprise) as I read about Ferdinand as he’s stung by a bee; baby ducks strut across a busy Boston street in Make Way for Ducklings; and when Madeline proudly displays her appendix scar to her friends and poor Miss Clavel. I think you’ll find these classic books recently reissued will enchant the next generation of kids too.
This is kind of a cuckoo idea for a book: a dog named Runcible digs a hole in Cape Cod that tunnels to a Japanese beach where he meets an adorable little girl named Taka-Chan. An evil sea dragon agrees to free Taka-Chan if they can find the most loyal creature in all of Japan and place a white flower at his feet. Hosoe’s breathtaking black and white photographs blend seamlessly with Lifton’s compelling story. The heroic duo’s devotion, friendship, and determination make this book one you’ll treasure always.
Ages 5-9 | Publisher: New York Review Books| April 3, 2012
This little house is not on the prairie, but resides in a peaceful setting with green fields full of daisies, apple trees, and happy critters all around. That is, until the builders and town starts to slowly encroach upon the little house’s surroundings. Winner of the 1942 Caldecott Medal, this is a sweet testament about how to appreciate the slower pace of life in the verdant countryside. The new edition comes with a bonus audio CD. For more details on Burton and her award-winning books, check out this film about her life and work.
As a child, I first fell in love with Burn’s detailed illustrations. Then, of course, her story inspired such a sense of creativity as Andrew resourcefully takes care of himself and builds his own village of houses and nutty inventions. It gave me an inkling of life’s possibilities
Literary agent Robert Lescher has passed away. He was 83-years-old.
Lescher established his career in the publishing industry as an editor. He climbed his way up and obtained the title of editor-in-chief at Henry Holt & Company. During his tenure at Holt, he edited the works of legendary poet Robert Frost, short story writer Wolcott Gibbsand memoirist Alice B. Toklas.
Here’s more from The New York Times: “When Mr. Lescher began his literary agency in 1965, his reputation for aesthetic insight and painstaking attentiveness to writers made him highly sought after…[Lescher's] clients included Frances FitzGerald, Benjamin Spock, Paula Fox, Madeleine L’Engle, Andrew Wyeth and Georgia O’Keeffe. Isaac Bashevis Singer, having served as his own agent for many years, hired Mr. Lescher in 1972, six years before Singer would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.” (via Shelf Awareness)
Oh what a lovely luscious line-up I have for you pretty chickens today. As you may have noticed, I'm now permanently eschewing topics. Topics are hard. They require thought and thought on a Sunday is to be avoided at all costs.
Today is my husband's birthday today, so let's have a bit of a birthday video, care of Barry Yourgrau's Nastybook.
Mr. Yourgrau has a whole host of these videos available here as well, by the by.
In keeping with British accents and the like, there's a rather amusing book trailer out there for Leonardo's Shadow by Christopher Grey. We haven't had a book trailer for a novel in a while. Eh voila.
I don't review YA but I don't mind showing their videos. My favorite part was seeing that the guy doing the voiceover, one Michael Dobson, advertises his own website during the credits. Why on earth would a man working via his voice have headshots? Curious.
Speaking of things that are curious, we're straying off-topic now and venturing into Ohmygodthat'sawesome territory with the next two videos. First up, the few-cha! I can't link the video here directly so just click on the tasty link.
I want two of these in my home by next year, people. Make it happen. Thanks to Eric Berlin for the news. The next one? Just neat.
And as for the last link, not only is it on-topic but it's quite a treat. A confusing treat, but a treat nonetheless. You may have heard some mention of the upcoming documentary The Hollywood Librarian. Well here's the trailer for it.
It's nice enough but when you compare the trailer to the description of the film, the two don't add up. Ah well. Just something to send you on your way this lazy hazy Sunday.
It was yesterday morning, Saturday. I had just turned on my computer, walked out to the kitchen to start the coffee and got my Madonna mic out of my desk drawer to begin my IS 520 distance course. I started deleting a bunch of emails, mostly from listservs, that I just don't have the time to soak up when I noticed a few subject lines - Madeleine L'Engle, L'Engle Remebered, CNN great article about Madeleine L'Engle. I panicked. It got worse when one email revealed she'd passed Thursday. Thursday! And it was Saturday! I lived my life like nothing happened, like one of my favorite authors hadn't left Life for After for two whole days!
And then I actually cried.
I was minutes from logging in to my course, minutes from having to be somewhat coherent and I was torn between sorrow at her passing, interested surprise that this was actually affecting me and anger that my world has been so annoyingly busy that I hadn't found out until Saturday. Of course the anger at my busyness turned into anxiety about my busyness and general resentment that this is my lot in life for the next few months, if not year. And then, stupidly, it turned to shame that my thoughts turned selfish and away from Madeleine.
I dressed up as her once. No, wait. I dressed up like Mrs. Whatsit. In my undergrad children's literature course we were supposed to give author study presentations and I chose to dress up in a white turbany thing and whirl around the room feeling simultaneously loony and twinklingly wise talking about "my creator/author."
What's crazy is I think I fell in love with her name more than her books. When I was younger I always identified more with the author and the status of "that came out of my head." And with a name like Bryn, I was a sucker for different names - L'Engle, Roald Dahl, Prelutsky, Shel, Beverly Cleary, Sachar. Yes, I was biased toward Madeleine. But the world and characters she created kept me there.
Over on the PUBYAC listserv, Jan Hanson of the Longview Public Library in Washington is looking for it: "A HS teacher called and is asking for ideas of books that illustrate a teen with passion, as in "a passion for dancing" or a "passion for football."
I love this query; it's requests like these that make us think about what books for kids do and don't do. Off the top of my head I think of that Joan Bauer book about a girl with a passion for shoe-selling, Hope Was Here Rules of the Road, and several of Chris Crutcher's early books feature teens with a passion for various sports. Oh, and that extremely high-minded but badly dated Madeleine L'Engle book about a fledgling actress, The Joys of Love. What else? Generalizing wildly, too often it seems that intense interest in something that isn't another person is viewed in YA books as dysfunctional or simply as a way to i. d. a character; i.e. "Jane loves music," but do we ever see her practice?
P.S. I put Harriet the Spy in the tags because she's the most passionate person I know in children's books, plus I've just started listening to Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost, an adult mystery that begins, anyway, with a very Harriet-like third-grader.
It occurs to me that now that Robert Langdon has raced around Rome, Paris, and D.C. he ought to go to New York; precisely to Madeleine L'Engle's current residence, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. His readers would love her; hers, I'm not so sure about.
“. . . one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle In Time.
When I was a kid, growing up in the 60’s, I didn’t read many children’s books. P.D. Eastman, of course, whom I liked better than Suess, some of the Little Golden Books, and later, the Hardy Boys. Frank and Joe, I think their names were. I have no memory of either of my parents reading to me, ever. It may have happened, must have happened, but I can’t recall it. I was the youngest of seven, born in 1961, and bed time wasn’t the hour-long ritual it’s become for so many kids today, with reading and talking and snuggling and sharing, etc. When I was a kid, it was more like, “Good night. And don’t forget to brush your teeth.”
The words that formed my reading habit came from the sports pages of The New York Daily News and The Long Island Press. I still maintain that my writing style, such as it is, was probably more influenced by Dick Young than anybody else: I faithfully read his column for many (formative) years. I also remember, as I reached my middle grade period, talking to my older brothers and sisters about books. They were readers, all of them, and loved Bradbury and Vonnegut and Brautigan and Robbins, so I picked up those books. I have a vivid recollection of writing a book report in 7th grade on any book I wanted. I chose Anthem by Ayn Rand, probably because it was a slendest paperback on the family bookshelf.
I also read sports biographies, being an ex-boy, and still hold a special fondness for Go Up for Glory Bill Russell. It hit me like a thunderbolt, and for a time I was determined to grow into a very tall black man who’d willingly pass up a shot in order to set a fierce pick and roll into the paint, looking for the put-back.
Anyway, I basically missed the entire canon of children’s literature. I didn’t read Where the Wild Things Are until I worked at Scholastic as a junior copywriter in 1985, hauling in $12,500 a year, thank you very much. These days I still try to fill in the holes, though I’ll admit it: I love adult literature. After all, I’m an adult. Those are the books that lit my fuse. I am not giving up my grown-up books.
Now, about A Wrinkle In Time. I liked it. Some parts — the first few chapters, especially — I really, really admired. Other parts — after the tessering, and into the full-blown fantasy — I didn’t care for as much. It reminded me of the original Star Trek series (my brothers loved Star Trek and we watched it religiously). In sum: Dated, kind of corny, a little obvious, but entertaining and fast-paced and intelligent and provocative, too. There’s a quality to the book, a be