FOR three decades, young and old readers have loved Madeleine L'Engle1's classic children's science fiction novel "A Wrinkle in Time."
Since it was first published in 1962, the book has not only delighted both children and adults, but it also blazed a new trail in science fiction writing. A 1963 winner of the Newbery Award for best children's book, the novel recounts the intriguing adventure of an adolescent girl, Meg, who journeys through time and space in search of her lost father.
Ms. L'Engle, in an interview from her spacious Manhattan apartment overlooking the Hudson River, says she never meant the book to be exclusively for children.
"I would get calls from editors saying, `Who is this book for?' `Is this book for children?' `Is it a book for grown-ups?' And I would say, `It's for people,"' she says.
When "A Wrinkle in Time" was first making the rounds of publishers, L'Engle received several rejections because the book was so unconventional. Finally, New York publisher Farrar, Straus, & Giroux decided to publish it as a children's book.
Attired in a colorful purple and blue smock dress, L`Engle says she grew up in a family that honored stories and books. Every night, she says, her parents would read aloud to each other.
"I grew up on fantasy and science fiction. And it always seemed to me that this is a genre best suited for speculative, conceptual writing," she says. "It turned out that [A Wrinkle in Time] was too difficult for adults and therefore we would have to market it for children," she says with a twinkle.
A prolific writer with more than 40 books to her credit, L'Engle has targeted both adult and youthful audiences. She is best known, however, for "A Wrinkle in Time," followed by the two sequels "A Wind in the Door" and "A Swiftly Tilting Planet" of her so-called "Time Trilogy" series.
But it is "A Wrinkle in Time" that readers most remember. The book not only tells an exciting, fantasy-like adventure of three engaging child characters, but it also raises deeper philosophical issues.
"It is about the confrontation of good and evil, and I think on some profound level that is something kids are drawn to. And it is a book about finding one's own place in a complex world," says Susan P. Bloom, director of the Center for Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College in Boston.
In her writings, L'Engle often alludes to Biblical themes and probes the nature of a spiritual force governing the universe.
She says the book for her "was basically my rebuttal to the German theologians," whose view of the universe was "narrow" and whose God was "punitive."
"I was simply trying to write about an open, loving, universe created with a beneficent purpose," says L'Engle, who calls herself a "cradle Episcopalian."
But it was her own experience living in a small rural village in Connecticut, with her husband and three children, that inspired her to ask deeper questions about life. Five close friends died within two years in a series of tragedies that surrounded her at the time.
"I was asking all of the big questions that adolescents ask, you know, `What's it all about?' And I was not finding the answers," she says.
Later, she was inspired by Einstein.
"I wandered into a book of Einstein. Now why I would pick a book of Einstein's I do not know, but I did," she says. "And in it I read that `Anyone who is not lost in rapturous awe of the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burnt-out candle.' ... I found these words excitingly theological, whereas the theologians I had been reading were making me feel like I was hitting blank walls."
Although L'Engle didn't originally set out to write the book for children, she says she was not surprised to learn how popular it was among children.
"My own children were seven, 10, and 12, while I was writing it," she says. "And I would read to them at night what I had written during the day and they would say to me, `Oh, mother go back to your typewriter [and write more]!' So, I knew kids could understand it."
L'Engle has an unusual ability to write about imaginative, futuristic ideas in her plots. In "A Wrinkle in Time" the three main characters must pass through a "tesseract," a fifth-dimensional corridor, on their journey to rescue Meg's father. L'Engle says the tesseract is a real concept and that she first read about it in an article in a science magazine.
"What I do in the science fantasies is take a current scientific idea and then, within the limits of possibility, open it up, push it a little further. And the fascinating thing is how many of the things that I have pushed are now accepted as fact," she says.
Here in New York, L'Engle lives with her two granddaughters, three cats, and very large golden retriever whom she affectionately refers to as "Teensie Weensie."
She is currently working on a book about icons and idols, as well as a young-adult fiction novel set in Antarctica that features a 16-year old protagonist.