This December, the first of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books will grace movie screens across the world, capping the trilogy's entrance into the canon of great children's literature. But Pullman is not the first children's author to mix quantum mechanics with witches, or to invest the cosmic struggle against evil with controversial theology. That honor belongs to Madeleine L'Engle, who died yesterday at her home in Connecticut at age 88.
L'Engle's masterpiece, A Wrinkle in Time, won the 1963 Newbery Award and has sold 6 million copies since. Unlike Pullman, L'Engle was no atheist, but her liberal Christianity was contentious at the time and remains so for some. When asked to name who fights the darkness, her characters place Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and Einstein on the same list. (Perhaps that's why A Wrinkle in Time is still, decades later, one of the American Library Association's most challenged books.) But — as with Pullman's readers, and C.S. Lewis's — most of the children who devour L'Engle's books probably ignore the theological details. Instead they are terrified by the palpable evil of IT, or awestruck as Meg puts on Mrs Who's glasses and sees the awful truth of the world.
That instant of realization is something that only the great writers for young people can give their readers. The world has awful truths, A Wrinkle in Time has told 44 years of readers; ignoring those truths is a kind of blindness, and seeing them through surface fictions takes bravery and will. That was L'Engle's great gift to the children who grew up with her books: their own pairs of glasses, to change the way they looked at the world. —Scott Westerfeld