Becoming Madeleine by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy

Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters
by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy
Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2018

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“I’ll never, no matter how wildly I succeed on the outside, be anything but a misfit on the inside.”

In her late thirties, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that line in one of her journals to express her lifelong fears about fitting in socially and becoming an accomplished writer. This new middle grade biography by her granddaughters, the sister duo Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy, follows Madeleine (as they always refer to her) from her somewhat lonely childhood up to her early forties, when the manuscript that would become A Wrinkle in Time was finally accepted for publication. Voiklis and Roy take the professional image of their grandmother – the woman who published over forty books (most for young adults), won the Newbery Medal and the National Humanities Medal, and penned one of the most beloved children’s books of the 20th century – and reveal how her personal struggles and insecurities shaped her into the wildly successful figure the world recognized.

Although Madeleine’s parents dreamed of having children for years before she finally came along in 1918, “the pattern of their married life had already been well established over the twelve years they had been together before she was born: dinner at eight, adult conversation, evenings out, and sleeping in.” They also had a tendency to treat her like a miniature adult instead of a child; when she was around eight, her father took her to see a tragic opera, and afterwards a “traumatized” Madeleine lied to him, saying she had enjoyed herself. When the family moved from the United States to Switzerland, eleven-year-old Madeleine was looking forward to her new European life, which she assumed would include more time than ever with her parents. It was a complete surprise when they packed up her belongings one day and drove her to Châtelard, a boarding school, where she arrived “three weeks late, after the ‘old’ girls had acquainted themselves with each other and the ‘new’ girls had formed their protective cliques. It was torture.”

Here and elsewhere, Voiklis and Roy avoid overdramatizing (soon after acknowledging that things did improve for Madeleine at Châtelard), while simultaneously honoring the intensity of childhood emotions, and the often small but significant experiences that stay with people throughout their lives. They also capture how school affects children’s self-esteem, as numerous early incidents with teachers in the United States left Madeleine with “the feeling that she was awkward, inadequate, unattractive, and stupid.” Her academic troubles continued in Switzerland, where several teachers noted that she had problems concentrating in classes she didn’t enjoy, and where it was deemed that her conduct was “good” but “too uncontrolled.”

These details come from actual photocopies of Madeleine’s Châtelard progress reports, and this is the element that makes Becoming Madeleine such a treasure of a book: the wealth of primary sources. Voiklis and Roy include photographs, journal excerpts, posters, and letters, so that Madeleine is present beyond their words and interpretations – she feels like a voice in the reader’s ear. Using these primary sources, Voiklis and Roy confidently trace the trajectory of their grandmother’s literary ambitions, which began when she was a young child (partly inspired by her father, who himself was a frustrated journalist and novelist). No matter how much she dreaded other subjects, Madeleine always excelled at English, using her free time to write poems and stories and sending them to magazines (regardless of how many rejection letters she received in return). Later in life, she noted in her journal, “[Writing] is just a necessary function to me like breathing and eating and eliminating. And is one of my greatest joys. And one of my greatest agonies….I must ‘be a writer’ in the fullest sense of the word. I must someday begin to approach more nearly what I’m striving for.”

She maintained this dedication to her craft and her belief that she had something to say to readers through the ups and downs of her early literary career, which she faced alongside the ups and downs of early motherhood. At the age of thirty-one, after publishing several decently-received books, Madeleine summed up her situation as follows: “If [my agent] doesn’t like this [next] book there is no need for me to lose faith in myself and my work, but it’s been too long since anything I’ve written has been considered acceptable; I’m in desperate need now of encouragement, not discouragement.” But there was plenty more discouragement in store as she attempted to sell a manuscript she referred to as Mrs. Whatsit (which would be renamed A Wrinkle in Time). Madeleine believed in this project more than any other she’d undertaken, but publishers were unwilling to take a chance on a book that was so difficult to categorize.

Voiklis and Roy recount these tales matter-of-factly, imparting very little external emotion on each story, but using slightly elevated language that mirrors their grandmother’s confidence in child readers. As the biography continues into Madeleine’s adult life, details about her relationships become fuzzier, as the authors themselves acknowledge in a note at the back, explaining, “[W]e wanted to respect the privacy of her journals and travel gently through them, especially those from the time we knew her.” This results in some elisions that will jump out to adult readers, like the tantalizing but unexplored detail that Madeleine’s children resented the autobiographical way she portrayed their family in her popular novel Meet the Austins. Despite the attention paid to her childhood emotions, her adult emotions, especially concerning her personal life, are glossed over, leaving the impression that only those less intimately connected to their biographical subjects could write the kind of invasive, tell-all portraits older readers crave.

But this lack of teeth for adults allows Becoming Madeleine to maintain its optimistic tone, leaving its intended child audience with plenty of entertaining stories and encouraging takeaways. Voiklis and Roy show that Madeleine may have always felt like a misfit, but ultimately she embraced that identity, channeling her joys, quirks, and fears into her characters – many of whom became iconic misfits. In the end, the qualities she didn’t love about herself were often the ones that endeared her stories to her young readers, and gave them hope that they, too, could fill their lives with adventure, purpose, and wonder.

Jennifer Helinek is a book reviewer and EFL teacher working in New York.