It seems as if children's book critic Leonard S. Marcus has interviewed everyone of note in the world of children's literature. This experience serves him extremely well in his latest book, LISTENING FOR MADELEINE. Madeleine L'Engle, who died in 2007 after a long illness, is probably best known to readers as the author of A WRINKLE IN TIME and many other books for young people. She also published a number of memoirs, in which (as Marcus's numerous interviews make clear) she provided a somewhat idealized portrait of her childhood, marriage and family life.
"Most interesting are the voices from L'Engle's childhood, through whom we learn about her distant relationship with her parents, particularly her father, and about her tendency to live her life through her imagination rather than through social relationships..."
Following a detailed and comprehensive introduction to L'Engle's life and works, Marcus divides his interviews --- many of which are recast as stand-alone narratives unpunctuated by interviewer questions --- into several sections, loosely grouping his interviewees according to the nature of their relationship with L'Engle. These include "Madeleine in the Making," "Writer," "Matriarch," "Mentor" and "Friend."
Most interesting are the voices from L'Engle's childhood, through whom we learn about her distant relationship with her parents, particularly her father, and about her tendency to live her life through her imagination rather than through social relationships --- more than one interviewee describes L’Engle as aloof or standoffish compared to her peers. Marcus seems to suggest that her lonely childhood and longing for her dad contributed to the number of absent fathers in her work, most notably Meg's quest to rescue her father in A WRINKLE IN TIME. L'Engle's own role as a wife and mother is also investigated in these interviews with her daughter and grandchildren; although they acknowledge that L'Engle was often distracted and more focused on book-writing than on child-rearing, their fondness for her and their acknowledgment of the difficulties she faced (which included her husband's serial infidelities and her son's death from alcoholism) shines through as well.
Marcus also includes a number of interviews with publishing professionals who interacted with L'Engle over the years, as well as a fascinating interview with a mathematician with whom L'Engle discussed the "tesseract" form of time and space travel. Writers with whom L'Engle was friendly are also well represented, including Jane Yolen, who views L'Engle as a pioneer in the then-unknown field of fantasy and science fiction for young people, and Judy Blume, who bonded with L'Engle over their views about censorship.
Most notably --- and perhaps controversially --- Marcus closes his collection with a brief interview with Cynthia Zarin, whose polarizing 2004 profile of L'Engle in The New Yorker offered the first glimpse of the woman behind the public persona and the written works. Zarin's article opened an important conversation about one of the most well-regarded and influential figures in children's literature; Marcus's book rounds out the portrait of this fascinating, flawed and brilliant woman.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 16, 2012