Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters
Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters
Written by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy
Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018
Grades 4 and up
“I was born with the itch for writing in me, and o, I couldn’t stop it if I tried.” Such were the words penned by a young girl in her journal as she turned to writing to make sense of the world around her. That same young girl would ultimately build a life of writing—embracing it as a means of solace, security, and possibility—and eventually publish one of the most beloved children’s novels of all time, A Wrinkle in Time. But Becoming Madeleine is not just the story of celebrated children’s author Madeleine L’Engle’s life, as told by two of her granddaughters, Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy. It is also the story of the power of writing, and what it means to lead a writerly life. Weaving a number of family photographs, letters, and other primary source documents, as well as excerpts from L’Engle’s own journals, into the very fiber of this biography, Voiklis and Roy present their grandmother as both a lonely child and a youth who found strength in solitude; a young woman both ambitious and insecure; and a writer both gifted and tenacious. Framing their grandmother’s story with a prologue, epilogue, and authors’ note from their own perspectives, Voiklis and Roy write with nothing short of admiration and love for a woman who persisted through the varied challenges life presented her and for a writer whose work continues to move and inspire children today. A biography with rich classroom utility, Becoming Madeleine is an indispensable addition to any classroom library.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
- Telling Family Stories. Use Becoming Madeleine as a mentor text for telling stories about one’s own family. What do Voiklis and Roy do as storytellers about their grandmother? What details and events do they include, and how do they describe them? With students, brainstorm and list questions they could ask their parents, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. Have students interview their family members, perhaps recording their discussions with audio recorders, smartphones, or iPads. Have each student write a narrative based on the interview, perhaps about just one family member, guiding students through the process to tell a rich and focused story about their families. Some mentor texts you might want to share include In the New World: A Family in Two Centuries, by Christina Holtei, and The Matchbox Diary, by Paul Fleischman, or perhaps even excerpts from L’Engle’s story about her own great-grandmother in The Summer of the Great-Grandmother. You might also want to integrate these activities with NPR StoryCorps’ Great Thanksgiving Listen Project, which asks students to record an interview with a grandparent or elder to contribute to a large-scale oral history project.
- Writing Biography with Primary Sources. Lead students in an inquiry about the different ways primary source documents can be used in writing biographies. With the help of your school or local librarian, gather a set of biographies that incorporate primary source materials, such as photographs, letters, journals, and official documents. Some titles that we’ve blogged about include Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, by Melissa Sweet; and Me…Jane, by Patrick McDonnell. How do authors use them to support the life stories they are writing about? After studying these texts, have students write brief biographies of someone in their family or community, gathering and incorporating primary source material into the writing of those life stories. They could begin by working with the school or local librarian to find a local newspaper from when they were born as well as a few other items like birth certificates, school diplomas, baptismal certificates, etc.
- Co-authoring Writing Projects. Have students reread the Prologue, Epilogue, and Authors’ Note to gather information about how Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Lena Roy worked together to co-author their grandmother’s biography. Share some other co-authored texts with students, specifically examining any front or back matter for information about the process of co-writing a piece with someone else. For example, what are the different ways in which co-authors can collaborate? What different roles might they take in the process of writing the text? Some co-authored titles we’ve blogged about include Skull in the Rock, by Marc Aronson and Lee Berger; Sugar Changed the World, by Marc Aronson and Maria Budhos; Same Sun Here, by Silas House and Neela Vaswani; The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; and No Monkeys, No Chocolate, by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young. Discuss what students have learned from these texts, and then have them work in partners to co-author a writing piece for your current or next unit of study.
- Female Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers. Use Becoming Madeleine as a way to introduce students to women who write fantasy and science fiction stories and to launch a unit on their contributions to the genre. Depending on their ages and grade levels, students can study Madeleine L’Engle along with Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Jane Yolen, Mary Shelley, Suzanne Collins, Tracey Baptiste, and J.K. Rowling, just to name a few. Form book clubs around students’ favorite female fantasy and science fiction writers, and have them conduct author studies about these imaginative and powerful female writers.
- Advice from a Professional Writer. Becoming Madeleine is full of L’Engle’s reflections on the writing process and living a writerly life. From finding ideas to write about to finding the motivation and inspiration to try again after painful critiques and rejections from publishers, L’Engle offers realistic insight into the mindset, experiences, challenges, and successes of writing. Have students identify lines from L’Engle’s journals and dialogue that they believe offers good advice about writing. Create posters of each line that students can decorate and hang around the classroom or school to serve as reminders that writing can truly be a worthwhile endeavor. You might also want to have students create a found poem with the lines they find in the book, or pair this book with Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, by Melissa Sweet, in a duet model text set about children’s authors.
- Children’s Biographies about Writers. Gather a text set of children’s biographies about writers, such as John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien, by Caroline McAlister; Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, by Melissa Sweet; A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day, by Andrea Davis Pinkney; The Pilot and the Little Prince, by Peter Sis; Brave Jane Austen: Reader, Writer, Author, Rebel, by Lisa Pliscou; and Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen: The Story of Six Novels, Three Notebooks, a Writing Box, and One Clever Girl, by Deborah Hopkinson; and even W is for Webster, by Tracey Fern, or The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, by Jen Bryant. After reading them, have students compare and contrast them in terms of content, style, back matter, and information about the writer. What, if anything, is similar about how the biographies portray these writers? What is different? How, why, and when do the writers begin writing? What is their writing process like? What lessons and strategies do they learn from studying these writers can they apply to their own writing?
- Madeleine L’Engle Multigenre, Multimedia Celebration. Madeleine L’Engle’s work has spanned genres and has been translated into various kinds of media, including graphic novels and most recently the 2018 film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. With students, plan a celebration of L’Engle’s life and contributions to literature through a series of multigenre and multimedia presentations. For example, some students may want to create book trailers about her books, while others may want to present some of her poetry through reader’s theater. Encourage students to tap into their strengths as writers, performers, and artists to determine the best ways they can contribute to the celebration.
- Madeleine L’Engle Author Study. Though best known for her Newbery Award winning novel A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle was a prolific writer. With the help of a school or local librarian, gather a collection of her work and biographical information, including interviews, speeches, and essays, reviewing them first to determine which ones are age and grade appropriate for your students. What threads of her biography do students see in her work? Read through her texts as a class, noting similarities and differences across the texts’ formats and styles. Take a close look at her writing techniques, noting her word choices and use of figurative language. Ask your students to identify patterns in setting, theme, character, and plot across the books. Examine Madeleine L’Engle’s storytelling techniques, as well as the topics and perspectives she writes about in her books. Compile a list of the writing techniques gained from this author study and invite your students to try out some of these writing craft moves you have discussed in their own writing.
- Framing Biography. The fact that Madeleine L’Engle’s own granddaughters wrote Becoming Madeleine underscores the notion that author’s perspective and values are always present in storytelling. Share some excerpts from Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices, by Leonard S. Marcus, a collection of interviews with people who knew L’Engle well and present stories about her from different perspectives. How do the identities of the interviewees and their individual relationships with L’Engle frame their description of her? Then, share excerpts from L’Engle’s memoir, A Circle of Quiet (or perhaps her entire Crosswicks Journal memoirs if it’s appropriate for your students’ age, grade, and reading abilities). How does L’Engle frame and present her own life story? Compare and contrast these different depictions of the famous author on both a micro and macro level to gain insight into how word choice, tone, and content can reveal an author’s perspective on a subject.
Madeleine L’Engle’s website
Madeleine L’Engle papers
Videos and Interviews of Madeleine L’Engle and writing
Madeleine L’Engle’s 1991 Commencement Speech at Wellesley College
NPR Storycorps – The Great Thanksgiving Listen
Bryant, J. (2014). The right word: Roget and his thesaurus. Ill. by M. Sweet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Fern, T. (2015). W is for Webster. Ill. by B. Kulikov. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Fleischman, P. (2013). The matchbox diary. Ill. by B. Ibatoulline. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Holtei, C. (2015). In the new world: A family in two centuries. Ill. by G. Raidt. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
Hopkinson, D. (2018). Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen: The story of six novels, three notebooks, a writing box, and one clever girl. Ill. by Q. Leng. New York: HarperCollins.
L’Engle, M. (1972). A circle of quiet. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Marcus, L. S. (2012). Listening for Madeleine: A portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in many voices. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
McAlister, C. (2017). John Ronald’s Dragons: The story of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ill. by E. Wheeler. New York: Roaring Brook Press.
McDonnell, P. (2011). Me…Jane. New York: Little, Brown.
Pliscou, L. (2018). Brave Jane Austen: Reader, writer, author, rebel. Ill. by J. Corace. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
Pinkney, A. D. (2016). A poem for Peter. Ill. by L. Fancher & S. Johnson. New York: Viking.
Sis, P. (2014). The pilot and the little prince. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Sweet, M. (2016). Some writer! The story of E. B. White. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Filed under: Biography & Memoirs, Nonfiction
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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