By Sara Zarr
Note: As this post touches on writing for children we wanted to remind you that Sara will be teaching a workshop on this subject at Glen Workshop East. More info here.
As part of research for my next book, I recently re-read Madeleine L'Engle's 1984 young adult novel, A House Like a Lotus, which I hadn't read since shortly after its publication. I was fifteen, I think, and very much like those girls L'Engle wrote about so lovingly—the old souls with little self-assurance among peers but at home among adults, smarter than was appreciated in high school by other kids and even some teachers.
I was afraid to go back to this book. Virtually all the books I loved in childhood and adolescence have let me down when I've revisited them as an adult. Over time and with age and the accompanying atrophy of imagination, the ideas have become flimsy, the worlds small, characters not as fully realized as they were in my memory.
As for A House Like a Lotus, I'd forgotten many details of the story but still keenly remembered the emotional impact of it, how it left me in a daze, and I mean the good kind of daze only a story that has spoken to you deeply can. When you're finished reading, you stumble through life like someone who has had her eyes dilated. You're seeing the world in glorious, unforgiving brightness, painful new detail, expansive periphery.
I didn't want to steal that experience from myself by trying to re-create what might have been a one-time convergence of soul and story. Yet, my desire to understand just why that book had affected me so deeply overrode my fears. I even tracked down a first edition on eBay so that it would look and feel as it had twenty-five years ago when I read the library copy.
I'm happy to report that my soul converged with it once again, perhaps even more deeply than it had at fifteen.
The book is a bit of a departure for L'Engle, at least what casual readers know of her work. Yes, it follows one of the lead castmembers across L'Engle's body of work, Polly O'Keefe. Yes, it involves world travel and big ideas and a deep exploration of what it means to be human.
This is also very much a painful and often dark coming-of-age story. It's about being let down by those you admire, and being let down by yourself. It's about sexual awakening, moving from girlhood into womanhood and independence and the confusion that brings, what it means about your fundamental identity.
In the days after finishing the book, I felt several things:
As a reader, I rejoiced that I could experience the book again as I had at fifteen. It completely absorbed me, filled me, floored me, and gave me the simultaneously blinding and eye-opening daze I always hope for when reading.
As a woman in the midst of something of an off-and-on midlife crisis, I wept a little. I always thought that one day I would know everything Polly O'Keefe did. I'd travel, I'd read the great philosophers, I'd learn several languages, I'd understand more about how the universe works, I wouldn't be afraid of hard work and new things.
And yet at forty I'm still clueless about so much, often frightened, and in some ways my world feels even smaller than it did at fifteen.
As a writer, and specifically as a writer of young adult fiction, I mourned. L'Engle was the best writer I know when it came to trusting in the intelligence and curiosity of young readers.
This excerpt, in which Polly reflects on what she's learned from her mentor, is but one example out of hundreds in her body of work:
Max made me see the fun of cross-referencing, or finding out, for instance, what was happening in the world of science when Montaigne was writing his essays, and what the lineup of nations was, and who was painting, and what was the popular music of the day.
Where are you going to find a casual reference to Montaigne in children's literature today—or for that matter in any literature today? Throughout her work there are allusions to the great thinkers and mythologies from every culture, she uses foreign and ancient languages, references to classical music and math and scientific theory, all of these things pointing to the wonder of the universe and highlighting the immense scope of the ideas she engaged with in her stories.
In an open fan letter to L'Engle posted at McSweeney's a couple of months ago, Natalie Grant wrote:
And oh, Ms. L'Engle, if you could see what teenage girls are reading these days. YA novels just don't sell anymore unless the conflict is outward, the enemy tangible, the sexual awakening exhibited via fangs and transparent metaphors. Love interests have "teams" now. I'm sorry to tell you this, but YA publishers no longer approve of nuclear families.
I also fear they don't approve of authors including too many ideas and references that are new or challenging to readers, and maybe to their parents, even, maybe, to their teachers. I wonder how L'Engle would have responded were she ever getting a conference critique from an editor or agent who said, “Don't know if kids today would get this. I'd cut it.”
The title of the book is explained within the story. In conversation with her mentor, Polly learns this quote from Upanishads (yes, I had to look that up, not only at fifteen but still, today):
In this body, this town of Spirit, there is a little house shaped like a lotus, and in that house there is a little space. There is as much in that little space within the heart as there is in the whole of the world outside.
Max tells Polly:
I've been watching that little space within your heart enlarging all year as more and more ideas are absorbed into it.... If we're not afraid, that little space can be so large that one could put a whole universe in it and still have room for more.
Publishers, teachers, librarians, parents—the gatekeepers of children's literature—and sometimes, writers, too, all of us, seem to struggle to keep faith in that space in young readers and in ourselves. That, yes, if we're not afraid, its capacity to be enlarged and filled—with all of the big ideas, ancient and new, about life and love and God and the universe and being a person—is without any limit but those we would impose on it.