Madeleine L’Engle’s Long Years of Literary Rejection

A wrinkle in Time 50th anniversary cover

Pairing Madeleine L’Engle‘s young adult novel A Wrinkle in Time together with the concept of literary rejection might seem odd, given its iconic stature. But I would challenge anyone to come up with a story that better illustrates the fine line between rejection and acceptance than hers: 

A Wrinkle in Time was almost never published. You can’t name a major publisher who didn’t reject it. When we’d run through forty-odd publishers, my agent sent it back. We gave up.”

Most editors thought it was too dark and complex for children. After some time, L’Engle made contact with John Farrar of Farrar Straus Giroux through a friend, and the rest is publishing history.

Published in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time is still in print, with millions of copies having been sold worldwide. It has the distinction of having won some of the most prestigious publishing awards, as well as being one of the most frequently banned books of all time.

Here are some passages from L’Engle’s memoir, A Circle of Quiet (1972), in which she recalls the bitter years when A Wrinkle in Time, as well as her other books, were met with nothing but rejection:


Madeleine L’Engle on keeping the faith

“When my book was rejected by publisher after publisher, I cried out in my journal. I wrote, after an early rejection, ‘X turned down Wrinkle, turned it down with one hand while saying that he loved it, but didn’t quite dare do it, as it isn’t really classifiable, and am wondering if I’ll have to go through the usual hell with this that I seem to go through with  everything that I write. But this book I’m sure of…'”

“… I was, perhaps, out of joint with time. Two of my books for children were rejected for reasons which would be considered absurd today. Publisher after publisher turned down Meet the Austins because it begins with a death. Publisher after publisher turned down A Wrinkle in Time because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was too difficult for children, and was it a children’s or adult book, anyhow?

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Madeleine L'Engle books on a bookstore shelf

L’Engle more than made up for her lost years of rejection

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My adult novels were rejected, too. A Winter’s Love was too moral: the married protagonist refuses an affair because of the strength of her responsibility towards marriage. Then, shortly before my fortieth birthday, both Meet the Austins and an adult novel, The Lost Innocent, had been in publishing houses long enough to get my hopes up …

On my birthday, I was, as usual, out in the Tower working on a book. The children were in school. My husband was at work and would be getting the mail. He called, saying, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this on your birthday, but you’d never trust me again if I kept it from you. [Such-and such editor] has rejected The Lost Innocent.

This seemed like an obvious sign from heaven. I should stop trying to write. All during the decade of my thirties (the 1950s) I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn’t like a good New England housewife and mother … So the rejection on the fortieth birthday seemed an unmistakable command: Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie.”

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Madeleine L'Engle's books

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Paving the way for more complex children’s literature

Fortunately, L’Engle didn’t “stop the foolishness;” she kept writing, of course, and with her persistence and belief in her power to tell stories, finally found that one editor who was willing to take the chance on her quirky, profound novel

Might L’Engle’s books have paved the way for the acceptance of children’s literature that’s more complex, even dark? Have these kinds of books become more palatable to publishers? That seems to be the case. Evidently, children have long proven themselves ready for these themes, borne out most abundantly by the unparalleled success of the Harry Potter series.

Much has been made of the initial rejections of the first installment of J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster series, but hers were the more usual numbers of rejections before an agent, then a publisher recognized the talent and passion of this then-unknown writer.

Her path wasn’t smooth, to be sure, but it may have been much rougher had it not been for authors like Madeleine L’Engle who came before her.

After A Wrinkle in Time came out and was an immediate smash success, the editors who has turned it down were filled with regrets: “After the unexpected success of Wrinkle,” L’Engle recalled, “I was invited to quite a lot of literary bashes and was frequently approached by publishers who had rejected it. ‘I wish you had sent the book to us.’ I could usually respond, ‘But I did.'”

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A Wrinkle in Time (cover) by Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Quotes from A Wrinkle in Time
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Translating A Wrinkle in Time to film

The first attempt to translate Wrinkle into film was in 2003, when a Canadian film company produced what was intended to be a TV mini-series. Instead, the episodes were combined into a three-hour block and aired on ABC-TV.

Though previously it had won Best Feature Film in the Toronto Film Festival, the televised version wasn’t well received by critics — or the author. L’Engle said in an interview: “I have glimpsed it … I expected it to be bad, and it is.”

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Scene From A Wrinkle in Time 2018

Scene from A Wrinkle in Time, 2018 film
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The big-budget, star-studded 2018 film version of A Wrinkle in Time has also received its share of mixed reviews. CNET, for example, wrote that for all the visual spectacle, it lacks:

“… the sense of wonder and discovery that should accompany such a film. The movie is supposed to be an epic adventure, but instead it feels like a taxi ride to somewhere with beautiful scenery in between.”

It’s interesting to ponder what the author would have thought of the Hollywood Blockbuster treatment of her quirky, groundbreaking sci-fi/fantasy novel for kids.

No matter what the budget is or how noble the intentions, it’s rare that a film really captures the spirit of a classic novel that the author intended. It does happen, but those instances are few and far between.

Still, it’s very cool that a novel that was nearly relegated to oblivion still continues to resonate. The moral of this story, though is … read the book. Or at least, read it before you see the film, so that you can hold the source material as the author intended, close to your heart.

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