Nearly 200 participants, including a distinguished roster of children’s book authors, gathered on November 16 at All Angels Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where author Madeleine L’Engle was a member for many years, to discuss how faith and art inform each other at Walking on Water: The Madeleine L’Engle Conference. Taking its title from L’Engle’s 1972 book, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, the event was organized by Brian Allain of Writing for Your Life, a resource center for spiritual writers; Charlotte Jones Voiklis, L’Engle’s granddaughter, literary executor and co-author, with her sister Léna Roy, of the middle-grade biography Becoming Madeleine; and Sarah Arthur, author of A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle. New York City’s Books of Wonder provided an on-site pop-up bookstore. The conference included performances by musician-in-residence Audrey Assad, a gallery of art inspired by L’Engle, and a keynote speech by Newbery Medalist Katherine Paterson. Bouquets of colorful balloons dotted the event spaces, in celebration of what would have been L’Engle’s 101st birthday on November 29.
“I wanted this gathering to be generative and forward-looking,” said Voiklis, “rather than a memorial or fan club meeting, to include more people, lift up other voices, and carry on in Madeleine’s spirit.” With that purpose in mind, Voiklis and Arthur set about creating a variety of sessions—panels, conversations, and workshops, including several focused on children’s books.
Arthur said, “We thought it important to have authors who represent a variety of religious traditions, in part to reflect the ecumenical and theological generosity that was Madeleine’s own posture, but also to acknowledge that many writers today are fearlessly giving their young characters agency to grow through religious experiences. Children have their own unique spirituality, their own curiosity and questions and formation in virtue. And these authors acknowledge that, even if their books aren’t always overtly religious.”
After the conference opened with a song by Assad and a welcome from Arthur, participants chose from three morning panel discussions; in one, a team of authors from We Need Diverse Books focused on “The New Generation of Meg Murrys—What Fantasy & Speculative Fiction Inspire.” Describing the partnership with WNDB, Arthur said, “I think many authors are tired of being the token under-represented voice at events like this, expected to ‘talk about diversity.’ Rather, WNDB authors came to talk about their genre, their craft, their audience, their experience as writers—and in the process they fulfilled WNDB’s vision to imagine a world in which every child can see themselves in the pages of a book.”
The panel consisted of Sayantani DasGupta, Heidi Heilig, and Karuna Riazi, all of whose sci-fi/fantasy novels feature young female protagonists of color, and was moderated by WNDB program director Caroline Tung Richmond. Its topic was determined by WNDB and Arthur in recognition of the influence A Wrinkle in Time has had on today’s generation of writers, and all the panelists said they had been deeply inspired by the book as girls and encountering, for the first time, a young female protagonist in a work of science fiction. DasGupta, a former pediatrician who now teaches in the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University, attributes her entire career to having read L’Engle’s books. “My life is an intersection of science and story,” she said, while Heilig spoke of the “subterranean effect of the book on all of my work.” For Riazi, the book’s power came in the form of her identification with Meg as an oldest sibling and the mix of love and resentment that the role brings. “The book was what I needed as a girl finding her place in the world,” she said. All agreed that reading about Meg Murry’s time-travel experiences empowered them to write the books they did.
DasGupta, the daughter of Bengali immigrants, described her Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series, which features an Indian girl growing up in New Jersey, as an homage to the space science of A Wrinkle in Time, calling the theory of parallel universes a “perfect way to explain the immigrant experience.” She recalled that her submission of a fantasy/sci-fi book featuring an immigrant girl of color was initially rejected and that she was instead encouraged to write a piece of realistic fiction about an immigrant girl’s cultural conflicts. The panelists agreed that publishers expect writers from other cultures to focus on characters engaged primarily in struggling with their cultural traditions and identities.
Riazi, a Bangladeshi-American Muslim, like her main character in The Gauntlet, describes her book as a turn-around of Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji, in that an older sister must enter into a board game to save her younger siblings. Riazi devoured fantasy books as a child and always wanted to write in the genre, but also feels strongly about the importance of family and friendship in books. In writing The Gauntlet, she said, she felt the weight of being the first to represent an entire ethnic community in a middle-grade book.
Heilig, who is half Chinese and half white, grew up in Hawaii in a family long assimilated into American culture. Her first two books, The Girl from Everywhere and The Ship Beyond Time, mix science fiction and mythology, reflecting the “science fiction nerd” she was in childhood.” as well as her struggles to fix upon an identity. “If you can see yourself in a million stories, how do you settle down into one of them?” she mused.
The panelists discussed the importance of writing “mirror” books for children who don’t see themselves in literature, while moderator Richmond noted that “diverse books aren’t just for diverse kids, they are window books for other readers, too,” meaning windows into cultures readers may be unfamiliar with. DasGupta remarked that while she expected her heroine to appeal to girls of color, she was happily surprised when young white boys embraced the book for the sci-fi adventures and details like “demon snot.” Heilig counts older white men who are interested in maps and Hawaiian history—both explored in her books—among her readers.
On Faith and on Films
WNDB’s participation in the conference came about through Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, a former WNDB board member. “WNDB recognizes all diverse experiences including religious minorities,” said Richmond, “and so I thought the theme fit very well within our mission.” Rhuday-Perkovich served as moderator for a panel entitled “Glorious Impossibles: Writing About Faith for Younger Readers,” leading authors Ibi Zoboi, Karina Yan Glaser, and Veera Hiranandani in discussions about how they see faith and spirituality in children’s books, and how their own spirituality shows up on the page.
Hiranandani, who grew up with a Hindu father and a Jewish mother, always wondered what it would be like to be rooted in one religion, and her books reflect her questions about religious faith. In The Night Diary, her 2019 Newbery Honor Book that takes place in 1947, the main character Nisha is half Hindu/half Muslim in the new country of Pakistan. In her earlier The Whole Story of Half a Girl, the main character is, like Hiranandani, half Indian and half Jewish. “I find that I’m writing more now about characters finding their religious identities and questioning why faith is important. With each book, I re-evaluate my own interfaith, even though I feel that I have made my peace with not always feeling fully Jewish or Hindu,” she remarked.
Zoboi believes that “there is a dire need for spirituality, especially for black and brown kids in urban areas.” In her books, she introduces African spiritual traditions—although she didn’t set out to do that, she admitted. “They just showed up,” she says, and now she is trying to go deeper. In Zoboi’s debut novel, American Street, Fabiola, newly arrived in Detroit from Haiti, holds onto her practice of the spiritual rituals of Haitian Vodou, which is an integral part of her identity. Vodou has connections with Catholicism and Irish Celtic myths, Zoboi explained, “and once you tap into Vodou, other deities open up.” In Zoboi’s second book, Pride, a character from Puerto Rico celebrates the rituals of Santeria, an African spiritual tradition that came to flourish in Latin America.
While there is no overt religion or spirituality in her series about the Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, a biracial family in Harlem, Glaser, who grew up as the daughter of a single non-practicing Catholic mother, said she writes about “happy families.” She came to the Christian faith in college and is now raising her daughters in the Episcopal All Angels Church. She feels that the community of faith that supports her family is reflected in her books.
Another panel considered film adaptations of books by L’Engle and keynote speaker Katherine Paterson. Cornelia Duryée of Kairos Productions, Catherine Hand, and David Paterson examined the challenges of adaptation on the panel “Icons of the True: Adapting Novels for Film.” Paterson, who wrote and produced the film of his mother’s Bridge to Terabithia in 2007 as well as the recent The Great Gilly Hopkins, starring Glenn Close, Octavia Spencer, and Kathy Bates, declared that the greatest challenge of making a film of a book is that everybody who has read a book already has a film of it in their head. Duryée, whose 2012 film Camilla Dickinson is adapted from L’Engle’s 1951 YA novel, agreed, adding that a film “is never going to be like the book,” due to the limitations of the medium—“you have to endlessly condense.”
Panelists talked about the demands often imposed by collaborators. When Disney first wanted to make A Bridge to Terabithia in the 1990s, they stipulated that “the girl can’t die”; readers know that the crux of the novel is the death of one of the main characters. “It took 17 years to get the film done right,” Paterson said. For Duryée, making Camilla Dickinson took 15 years because she refused to give in to the changes studios wanted, instead raising the money to produce the film herself.
And for A Wrinkle in Time, the process took decades. Catherine Hand first secured the rights to make the film from L’Engle in the 1970s, but numerous setbacks with screenwriters kept the book from the screen until the 2000s. In 2004, a made-for-TV film was released, to mixed reviews; it wasn’t until screenwriter Jennifer Lee, of Frozen fame, came on the scene that the 2018 film, directed by Ava DuVernay with a racially mixed cast, was produced.
Asked if having a diverse cast opened up the film to more viewers, Hand responded with an emphatic “yes! The decision changed the audience for the film.” Many black children did not know the book but came to see the film because it starred a black girl and included other actors of color, she said. Hand also recalled that decades ago a librarian had asked that, if a film were to be made, at least one of the trio of “magical ladies” (Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit) be a woman of color so that “kids can see angels can be black.”
Between panel discussions, informal conversations were held at lunchtime, including one led by Lindsay Lackey, author of the recently released middle-grade novel All the Impossible Things, as well as of the reading guides to many of L’Engle’s adult nonfiction books re-issued by Convergent Press. Entitled “Reading Like Madeleine,” the conversation roamed from discussions of books by L’Engle to others that were meaningful to participants, who shared both adult and children’s titles.
A Stirring Keynote and Closing
A highlight of the conference was the keynote speech by Katherine Paterson, whose books, as Sarah Arthur said in her introduction, “have become part of the canon of children’s literature.” Now 87, Paterson tries to avoid air travel but agreed to speak at the conference because, she said, “Christianity has such a bad name these days that it seems important to me to talk about the connection between my faith and my work.” She came to celebrate L’Engle, too, whom she described as “very brave and very wise,” and with whom she often shared stages and attended conferences. She and L’Engle also shared space on Banned Books lists; L’Engle’s were criticized by Christian groups for their fantasy while Paterson’s were attacked for being “too realistic,” because they included bullies, racist characters, and profane language. “If you want to write realistic fiction,” Paterson said, “you have to tell the truth about human nature.”
Paterson also talked about her writing process and her rule of writing two pages a day, no matter how discouraged she feels. Her current work-in-progress is the result of two earlier book ideas, neither of which seemed to go anywhere. “One idea does not a novel make,” she said, “but two neglected ideas….”
The best thing about being an author, Paterson concluded, is having readers. “The real miracle is when a reader finds in your book something he or she needs at that moment. Stories bring light and healing into us, as Jesus did.” The audience gave her a standing ovation.
In her closing remarks, Voiklis announced several new initiatives by the L’Engle family. The L’Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship, part of PEN America’s Prison Writing Mentor Program, in which PEN authors are paired with incarcerated writers whom they mentor and support, will recognize three outstanding mentors in this program, in recognition of one of the program’s early partnerships between L’Engle and then-incarcerated Ahmad Rahman. Secondly, Smith College, L’Engle’s alma mater and the recent recipient of a significant portion of her literary estate, is creating an endowment for the Madeleine L’Engle Research Travel Fellowships Fund to enable in-person research at the college, while Image Journal is using a gift from the L’Engle family to create The Madeleine L’Engle seminars: six events over three years that will bring together artists and scientists to explore how their work is in conversation with theology.
Voiklis also talked about the origins of A Wrinkle in Time, which “percolated” in the 1950s during L’Engle’s years living with her husband and children in a small town in Connecticut, struggling to write, raise a family, and run a general store. She quoted from L’Engle’s Newbery acceptance speech in 1963: “A book, too, can be a star, explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”
In conclusion, Voiklis reminded participants, “Madeleine’s faith did not inform her art. Her art informed her faith. Creativity is a way of living your life, no matter your vocation.”