The year 2018 would have marked the late award-winning author Madeleine L’Engle’s 100th birthday. The occasion is being celebrated by two key events: the publication of a middle-grade biography, written by her granddaughters, and a long-awaited film of her 1963 Newbery winner, A Wrinkle in Time.
L’Engle loved birthdays. Celebrating her own in late November was always a highlight. A few years ago, reflecting on the approach of this important anniversary, her granddaughters Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy started thinking about what they could do as a meaningful tribute to the acclaimed author. Both women had been exceptionally close to their grandmother.
“We didn’t want to throw a party or have to organize and host a public event,” said Voiklis. For Roy, a writer and teacher of writing to young people, writing L’Engle’s biography had been in the back of her mind for several years. “The idea lay dormant for a long time,” she said. “I wanted to let it rise organically.”
Voiklis, who is L’Engle’s literary executor, initially found the prospect daunting. She knew exactly how much material existed—boxes and boxes of journals, manuscripts, letters and other memorabilia. L’Engle had kept a journal since childhood and was a prolific correspondent as well. What’s more, Voiklis did not consider herself a writer. “I do lots of writing,” she noted. “But I don’t have the same relationship to the craft as my grandmother and my sister. So at first I thought maybe somebody else should do it.” She quickly realized, though, that even if another biographer were to take on the project, it would still involve a lot of work for her, as literary executor.
While the sisters were pondering the idea, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical theater production of Hamilton, telling the life story of Alexander Hamilton in hip-hop form, was taking New York City by storm. The words to one of the songs helped convince Voiklis that she and Roy should take on the task. “My daughter had the soundtrack on continually and we got hooked on it as a family,” she recalled. “I started getting shivers listening to the words: ‘Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.’ ”
Voiklis’s first impulse was to create a picture book. “There were moments in Madeleine’s life I could so clearly visualize, like her first memory of being taken outside at night, as a very young child, to see the stars.” She brought the idea of a picture book to Margaret Ferguson, then at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who had a long relationship with L’Engle’s work (and had also edited Roy’s 2010 YA novel Edges). Ferguson believed that a middle-grade biography would be a better format. “I thought a biography suitable for the same audience that reads A Wrinkle in Time would be more successful,” Ferguson said. “I also thought it would be able to accommodate archival material that readers would find interesting.”
Voiklis soon came to agree, and the sisters decided they would collaborate on the project, later titled Becoming Madeleine. Roy, like Ferguson, felt that middle-grade readers would be the perfect age to appreciate a book about their grandmother. “When we were 11, we were so in love with our grandmother!” she recalled. “And writing for middle grade is such a beautiful way to write—you want it to be authentic, not sugar-coated but touching on adult concerns in a way that doesn’t overwhelm a younger reader.”
Voiklis added, though, that “while it’s marketed for readers in the middle grades, we are granddaughters of the woman who said, ‘If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children.’ So we hope that it will speak not only to [young] readers but to artists and women and everyone interested in the period, or in writing.”
The Collaboration Begins
The sisters then began the sensitive task of reading their grandmother’s private journals, which during her life had generally been off-limits to everyone, including them. “When I became a new mom,” Roy recalled, “I was really curious about Gran’s life when she was a young mother, and she gave me permission to read those sections.” With that exception, the privacy of the journals had always been respected. Even for this book, Roy and Voiklis were careful to examine only what was relevant to their biography, which ends in 1963 with the publication of A Wrinkle in Time. “We felt the best way to balance the respect for her privacy with enthusiasm for her work was to read only about the years we cover in the book,” said Voiklis. And even with this restriction, the material from some periods of L’Engle’s life—her years as a young adult in New York City, for example—was so voluminous that they had to make some deliberate choices to skip some of it, focusing on moments that were important to L’Engle’s development as a writer.
The writer’s own voice first appears in the book when she is 11 years old and attending boarding school in Switzerland. Journals from this year, 1930, are the earliest that Roy and Voiklis have found in the archives. They agree it’s possible that earlier ones exist, but unlikely; the archives are very well-organized. “We didn’t want to poke around indiscriminately before the collection goes to an institution,” said Voiklis. “I have a scholarly background, and am cautious with archives.” (There is no commitment to an institution at this time.)
They initially opened the biography with those years, recognizing the strength of their grandmother’s voice to draw in readers and make the book come alive. But Ferguson, who moved her imprint to Holiday House soon after the book had been edited, encouraged them to write chronologically, starting with L’Engle’s parents, followed by her birth and early childhood.
Their grandmother had told them many stories about her early life, so the journals didn’t reveal any great surprises. But the sisters were stirred by the consistency of L’Engle’s voice from her earliest age through her final works.
“Madeleine was so relatable,” Roy said. “And so ambitious and driven from an early age. I had known that, of course, but—wow!—to see that searing drive in her journals. By the time I knew her she was completely established, so I never experienced that aspect of her.”
Collaborating on a book can be filled with pitfalls, but both Roy and Voiklis describe the experience in glowing terms. “It sounds warm and fuzzy—two sisters working together—but I knew there could be a real conflict, too, with siblings working on a subject we both feel strongly about,” Voiklis said. “But it was a lovely experience.”
“It was so connecting for us,” Roy added. “We were kind to each other, but not overly sensitive, and the work on the book was completely equal.”
They collaborated using Google Docs; Roy (who admits she is not afraid of producing an extremely rough first draft) would write a section, which Voiklis would edit and then add to. Roy would edit Voiklis’s new material, then continue the story. “It was seamless. Sometimes we were literally in Google Docs at the same time, editing and rewriting together. I loved it when Charlotte made changes in my work. We both wanted it to be the best it could be.”
Voiklis believes L’Engle would have been especially proud of her granddaughters for working so hard together to create the book. “My grandmother has inspired my whole life,” said Roy, “and this is a love letter to her.” Both hope that the book will inspire readers in their own “becoming.”
A Decades-Long Path from Book to Film
The biography, which they’ve always regarded as a birthday present for their grandmother, is scheduled for publication on February 6, and several promotional events are planned to take place in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. A month later, on March 9, the eagerly anticipated film of A Wrinkle in Time, directed by Oscar nominee Ava DuVernay, will be released. Voiklis and Roy both agree that their grandmother would have been extremely pleased.
“It’s a tremendous honor to have an artist reinterpret another artist,” said Roy. “It was always a disappointment to her that no blockbuster film of this book was made in her lifetime.” (A made-for television film was produced by Disney in 2004, and was received unenthusiastically.) A Wrinkle in Time’s journey to the big screen started with the decades-long passion of producer Catherine Hand, who read the book as a girl and vowed to herself that when she grew up she would make it into a film. She was not much of a reader, but a librarian put the book into her hands and by the fifth sentence, she was hooked. “I immediately saw it as a film,” Hand recalled, “a great adventure story about two kids in search of their missing father.”
As an adult, Hand found her way into the film and television industry and, in 1979, persuaded her boss, Norman Lear, that his production company should buy the rights for the book. His decision marked the beginning of a strong bond between Hand and L’Engle. “She became a true mentor,” Hand said. “We had this amazing relationship centered on our love for A Wrinkle in Time, but it grew into a real friendship. She taught me so much over the years.”
When she first met L’Engle to discuss film rights to the book, Hand learned that hundreds of people had wanted the rights over the years, but L’Engle had always said no. “She was extremely protective of the characters and themes. She was both excited about the possibility of a film and concerned that it be made ‘right.’ ”
L’Engle sold the rights to Lear’s Embassy Pictures in 1979, and Hand became its champion within the company. But several attempts at screenwriting—including L’Engle’s own—failed to produce a satisfactory script. During the process, Embassy Pictures was sold. A Wrinkle in Time was not included in the sale of Embassy, thereby allowing Hand to eventually sell the rights to Miramax, which was bought by Disney soon after. Budget constraints influenced the decision to make a TV movie as opposed to a theatrical release, and contributed to its disappointing result.
Hand credits Tendo Nagenda, executive v-p of production at Disney, with stirring up renewed interest, a decade later, in producing a film. Nagenda introduced Hand to Jim Whitaker, who became her producing partner, and kept all the moving parts going in the right direction. When writer Jennifer Lee came into the picture, Hand noted, “Everything started to fall into place. She had an affinity for the material like no one else. When I first met her, I thought I was speaking with a young Madeleine L’Engle.” Nagenda also convinced DuVernay to sign on to the project. “Sometimes it felt like there was a force at work greater than any one of us nurturing the project along,” Hand reflected.
Roy and Voiklis were already working on the biography when, in February 2016, DuVernay was announced as the film’s director. “We knew we wanted the book to come out in the same time frame as the film,” Voiklis said. “But we took the production with a grain of salt because of the long history of stops and starts.”
Though the sisters had no direct input into the movie, Voiklis noted that the producers were “generous and lovely with us. They weren’t seeking our approval, but it was clear that it was important to Ava and the producers to be respectful.” She visited the set three times, and she and Roy are extras in one of the scenes. They are eager to see the finished production, and both are confident that their grandmother would give her blessing.
“Madeleine would be thrilled that something she wrote more than 50 years ago has inspired the creative vision of another artist,” Voiklis said. “To write something that has a life outside of and beyond the original artist is an amazing accomplishment.”
Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $19.99 Feb. 6 ISBN 978-0-374-30764-6