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Fantastical Women February 25, 2013

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.

Listening for MadeleineI had a perfect duo of fantasy writers waiting for me at the library a few weeks ago, almost without trying: Reflections, a collection of essays by Diana Wynne Jones, and Listening for Madeleine, the new biography of Madeleine L’Engle by Leonard Marcus. It was time to get better acquainted with two giants of fantasy and science fiction for young readers.

Madeleine L’Engle is a perfect example of a writer whom I admire, but do not worship. I love A Wrinkle in Time, but have only read a few of her other books. I never felt the need to read the entire Murray quartet or any of the Austin books. I have  read a few of her early pieces of fiction such as The Joys of Love and And Both Were Young, but more out of interest in mid-century young adult fiction than because of interest in L’Engle. I had some awareness that as an icon of children’s literature she had some controversies surrounding her life, but much of the discussion of her tendency to embellish and romanticize the past was new to me.

Marcus has created this biography as a ‘portrait of many voices.’ Rather than writing one straightforward chronological narrative, he has grouped interviews into categories such as ‘writer’, ‘childhood’, ‘mentor’ or ‘icon’. The very first selection immediately draws you in; L’Engle’s cousin Mary L’Engle Avant describes life as a debutante in 1930’s Jacksonville, Florida and makes it abundantly clear just how and why L’Engle felt out of place in that world. Some interviews are short, others are long and together they create a wonderful mosaic of the many aspects of L’Engle’s life.

While I’m still not going to go out and immediately read everything she wrote, I have a much greater appreciation of L’Engle as a writer. As her friend Barbara Braver says in her interview “She understood that if you’re wide-awake and alert to the life around you, then stories will occur to you–stories that nobody but you can tell.”

ReflectionsI’m more familiar with Diana Wynne Jones, having read at least four or five of her books, thanks to my siblings. Reflections is a collection of her essays and lectures on fantasy and writing for children. As might be expected,  a handful of themes come up again and again, as well as several childhood stories from what sounds like a most unorthodox childhood. While she can occasionally be a little more long-winded than I would like, Jones nails several truths about imagination, the importance of fantasy to children and the craft of writing. She makes me deeply glad that I grew up in an era where reading fantasy was encouraged and even more glad that I am part of a generation of educators and artists who celebrate fantasy and acknowledge it’s importance as a genre. If I hadn’t already been in love with Jones as a writer, I would have fallen for the statement “I love telling stories. Finding out what happens next. And the bit where it all starts to come together at the end is the most marvelous thing I know.” Me too!


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