Madeleine L’Engle is one of the literary world’s brightest lights. An avid journal writer and prolific author, she penned more than 50 books during her career — including the classic “A Wrinkle In Time” — and inspired legions of fans, young and old, along the way.
The classic book receives its much anticipated big-screen release today, helmed by famed director Ava DuVernay and an all-star cast that includes Oprah Winfrey (Mrs. Which), Reese Witherspoon (Mrs. Whatsit), Mindy Kaling (Mrs. Who) and newcomer Storm Reid (who plays the film’s protagonist, Meg).
I had the chance to speak with L’Engle’s granddaughters, Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy, about her life, “A Wrinkle in Time,” empowering women and girls, and their new book, “Becoming Madeleine,” the biography they wrote about their beloved “Gran.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chanté Griffin: Let’s start with the premiere. What was it like to see the book on the big screen?
Charlotte Jones Voiklis: It was tremendous. I mean, you know, we’ve been told for the past 35 years that there was gonna be a big movie. So we waited a long time. So when it’s finally here, this really feels like such a beautiful moment for the book and the story, and the fact that it’s Ava directing, it’s such a stellar cast. It’s really a tremendous surprise and joy to see.
CG: Did the movie feel like an extension of the book or did it feel like its own distinct piece of art?
CJV: Oh, I think it’s definitely its own distinct piece of art. I think the best adaptations always are. They have to be their own thing and stand on their own feet. But it’s also most definitely recognizable to people who loved the book and love the story because it sort of leaves you with the same feelings of optimism and inspiration that we all have a part to play and that it’s important that we play it. So I think it really accomplishes what the best adaptations do.
CG: What did it feel like, the first time you read “A Wrinkle in Time”?
CJV: My sister and I have very different answers to this because I don’t remember the very first time that I read “A Wrinkle in Time.” I feel like I always knew the story. Of course that can’t be true.
Léna Roy: I remember very clearly. I was in 2nd grade, about 7 years old. I went to school, and my grandmother lived about five blocks away. So at story time my teacher pulled out “A Wrinkle in Time,” and I had seen this book laying around the house, and she started reading, and I was captivated and enraptured. At the time, I was reading and enjoyed reading, but I wasn’t reading full-on books yet. She read the first chapter, and I recognized it: I recognized my grandmother, I recognized Crosswicks. I was so excited that I went to her house, curled up on her bed, and read the whole thing, cover to cover. And fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe that my grandmother had written this book. And I’ve read it at least 50 times. I read it a ton as a kid, and I read it almost every year as an adult, and I get new things out of it. It’s one of my favorite books.
CG: Why do you love this story so much?
CJV: Well the story was so deeply personal to our grandmother and we were very close to her, so on one level it’s about our closeness to her, but it’s also just an amazing universal story that is accessible. It has touched people for 56 years. And I think it does that because it really taps into our longing for meaning and for a sense of purpose and a sense of hope that in a dark world, that there can be light.
CG: Is that something that you try to instill in your children? This message?
CJV: It’s not a lesson we learn once. We have to learn it over and over and over again. But that’s why it’s also so powerful. It’s not like ... I mean to me, it’s not a superhero story in that, like, you vanquish the bad guy and you move on. But of course, superhero stories are never like that actually, right? But it’s that we discover that darkness can be overcome and that darkness can come in many, many forms.
CG: On Léna’s website, she spoke about your grandma giving her a journal when she was 9 years old. Did you get a journal, too?
CJV: Léna and our grandmother really bonded over that kind of joy in being a writer, and having a journal, and writing poetry, and sharing things that way. I didn’t. That’s not the way I used my brain. And I had a sort of a different relationship with her.
LR: I think I always knew that I wanted to be a writer, and knew I was a writer, but I didn’t listen because I didn’t want to. I felt like I couldn’t follow in Gran’s footsteps. It was right after she died, and I felt that she was saying to me, “You’re a writer.” And I think that’s why it’s so important to me, and so meaningful for me to teach writing to younger people, so that they could find their voice, because it took me so long to find mine.
CG: How old were you?
LR: I was 32 or something. When I started taking myself more seriously as a writer. Again, I always wrote, always, but I couldn’t see myself as a writer because a writer was someone like my grandmother who published 60 books and was famous. And even though she always said, “You’re a writer if you write,” I didn’t have the esteem, I guess. I just couldn’t take myself seriously that way. I had to mature in a certain way.
CG: Were there lots of books in your home? I’m assuming so.
CJV: Oh, yes. Lots and lots. Too many books. So many books.
CG: Do you have a hope for your children that they will love reading or love literature? It feels like the family business, so to speak. Or do you hope that your kids will do whatever it is that they want to do?
CJV: Yeah, I think that’s the dream. That your children find what they love to do and are able to follow it. I have two children. One is a freshman in college and one is a senior in high school. As a parent with kids it’s so hard to not make the mistake of projecting your own experience onto them. My daughter wasn’t really comfortable with reading until well into second grade which, you know, 40 plus years ago, that was fine. You weren’t expected to read until then. But these days, if you’re not doing words in kindergarten…
CG: You’re slow.
CJV: Parents get alarmed. But it’s really unfair to the kids. Because she’s fine and she became a really great reader. And you know, good parents, if you push what you love, you run the danger of a backlash. So you have to be careful, I think, with letting the kids develop their own sense of what gives them pleasure and what’s interesting to them.
CG: Traditionally, literature hasn’t produced a ton of young girls as protagonists. What impact do you think Meg has had on young girls throughout the last five decades, and what impact do you hope that she has on this new generation?
LR: Meg has had a tremendous impact as a role model and barrier-breaker. She has inspired scientists and artists and parents. We hope that she will continue to inspire girls (and boys, too!) to recognize that the love they have for themselves and for others can defeat the darkness.
CG: Your grandmother was a strong-willed, ambitious woman. Are there any parallels between her and her character, Meg? If so, what are they?
LR: She always said that she was Meg, and they shared an intensity, impatience, stubbornness, generosity and loyalty.
CG: Our country is in the midst of a national conversation about what it takes to “raise strong girls.” What are you doing to ensure that your daughters feel empowered to do whatever they want, like the powerful women in their family?
LR: We both have daughters. We also both have boys. We hope we’re raising all our children to be strong, discerning, caring and empathetic. We live in a diverse and connected world. We need to evolve our understanding of what it means to be powerful from beyond the ability to do anything we want and to the ability to create positive change for ourselves and those around us.
CG: What legacy do you want your grandmother’s work to have?
CJV: She wrote more than 60 books that have touched a great many people in lots of different ways. “A Wrinkle in Time” means a lot of different things to people, so her legacy is not a single thing. I want as many of her books as possible to be continue to be read by future generations, and for her to be part of the conversation. She always said that her books had a life of their own, apart from her. She felt it was a privilege that this was so.