Classic Middle Grade and YA: The Austin Family Chronicles (Books 1, 2, and 4) by Madeleine L’Engle
One of my major reading goals this year is to read more middle grade fiction, both classic and contemporary. I’m currently writing a manuscript that fits into this category and would like to explore some beloved stories I missed when I was younger, as well as read from the current market.
The first author I turned to this year was Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle is by no means new to me: I read the first four Time books on my own in third grade, the fifth one (which is actually more of an O’Keefe novel–more on that later) before sixth grade, and then I reread A Wrinkle in Time in middle school because I had fallen in love with Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which scrutinizes the time travel in the classic. I remember really enjoying A Wrinkle in Time (though my first exposure was parts of the 2003 movie at school, which kind of terrified me) and A Wind in the Door, but I think A Swiftly Tilting Planet went over my head (though I’ve since heard it’s one of the best) and Many Waters I struggled through. And despite reading it almost three years later, all I really remember from An Acceptable Time is a discussion about periods.
I’d been aware while reading these that Madeleine L’Engle had written other series. It was hard not to, after all, with this intriguing chart at the beginning of the books:
I’ll get more into it later, but at the beginning of embarking on this middle grade journey (though I’ve since discovered that most of the series could be classified as YA), I’d picked out just two L’Engle books to read: A Ring of Endless Light, the fourth Austin book that is the most beloved, and A House Like a Lotus, because I was curious as to how its content was presented back when the book was published. Then I added Meet the Austins–the first Austin family book–because I figured I should be familiar with the Austin characters first. So that was where I started, and it actually superseded my expectation so much that I had to read the second book, A Moon By Night, before finally getting around to A Ring of Endless Light.
What distinguishes the Austin books from the Time books, as the “kairos” and “chronos” labels on the chart indicates, is that there aren’t the wacky sci-fi elements. Except, that isn’t entirely true: A Ring of Endless Light features some dolphin telepathy. More interestingly, the L’Engle’s series are rather loose and vary in their story structure: Meet the Austins was really just several connected short stories, The Moon by Night is a teen road trip romance, and The Young Unicorns is actually more of a mystery in third person and focuses on a different character (the reason why I didn’t read it…yet). And that’s only in the Austin books.
More interestingly, for me, is that her series were all written out of order. Current middle grade and YA authors may write two series at one time, but not only are they intended to maintain tight continuity, they are released on a regular schedule. Of course, this may be due a little bit more to the current publishing climate and the desire to maintain continuity (with many series often detailing one long story), but L’Engle’s irregular publishing schedule is fascinating. The Austin Family Chronicles were published over 34 years, from 1960 to 1994–though the first three were published in the ’60s. But A Wrinkle in Time was also published in 1962, and then three years later The Arm of the Starfish was published, featuring Meg and Calvin’s daughter. The Moon By Night, published just a year after A Wrinkle in Time, also references Meg and Charles Wallace and featres the debut of Zachary Gray, who will become one of L’Engle’s most prominent characters. Meanwhile, the direct sequel to A Wrinkle in Time wasn’t published until 1972. No one can really work out exactly when in the 20th century the books can possibly all take place, but the crossovers of so many characters, the publishing history, and the various genres involved made my head spin–in a good way–and I made a great decision in diving into it.
Meet the Austins
The first book in the series, Meet the Austins, is less of a novel and more of a collection of linked stories surrounding the Austin family: Mother, Daddy (a doctor), John (who has started high school), Vicky (12), Suzy (9, pretty and smart), and Rob (4, adorable). It’s told from Vicky’s first-person point of view, which I found engaging, especially when read on the audiobook. There’s plenty of casual jargon (for the 1960s), but it doesn’t feel forced or overpowers the ability to convey emotions and the story.
The book begins with a phone call that informs the Austins that their uncle has died in a plane accident along with his co-pilot, who left behind a ten-year-old daughter, Maggy. Right away, it’s clear the L’Engle does not shy away from complex and serious topics; although I found the book rather feel-good, it has plenty of discussion of big topics like death and religion. The Austins have some trouble to adjusting to life with Maggy, but her gradually becoming a valued member of the family forms the main arc of the book, woven throughout the various stories.
The stand-out chapter/story for me was “The Anti-Muffins.” This is a bit of a cheat, as the chapter wasn’t published in the novel originally as it was too “controversial,” and was instead published in 1980 as a separate picture book. It has since been restored in the newer editions of Meet the Austins. (In fairness, Vicky summarizes the story for Zachary in the sequel.) This is frustrating on a couple of levels: it contains an important message that is common sense by today’s standards (but apparently too much for 1960), and it tells of a major step of integrating Maggy into the family. The story is largely about prejudice, as the “Muffins” are what the Austins call those who stereotype and judge without thinking, based on an anecdote of Rob, and the Austins and their friends (including a poor Hispanic boy) have their “Anti-Muffin Club” to discuss the issues, and they induct Maggy into it after she stands up for John when he is bullied.
Overall, Meet the Austins was old-fashioned, charming, and feel-good, reminding me of Beverly Cleary or other classic children titles. However, while the other books in the series that I read share the same thoughtful tone and Vicky’s voice, Meet the Austins is different from them in the sense that it’s much more middle grade than YA.
The Moon by Night
The second Austin Family book jumps forward about three years, to the summer Vicky’s about to turn 15. The family is taking a long road trip from campsite to campsite (do people do that anymore?) across the country. Like Meet the Austins, there are also adventures (though smaller) at each campsite that could be called stories, but the novel’s plotting is more cohesive, as the L’Engleverse’s bad boy Zachary Grey makes his first appearence meeting the Austins on and off on their journey and pursuing a relationship with Vicky. (Meanwhile, Maggy leaves at the beginning, having found a home.) With this novel, I feel confident enough to say that the Austin Family series enters a new phase:
Zachary is a bit of the reckless, older bad boy stereotype, fond of calling Vicky “Vicky-O” and speaking with some other silly slang. But I wasn’t too annoyed at him, because Vicky is quite conflicted about him and annoyed at some of his traits, not completely smitten. He was mostly a curiosity for her, rather than her “one true love.” Like many girls her age, she’s curious about kissing, and she’s attracted to Zachary.
But what makes The Moon by Night compelling is that it’s really about Vicky trying to figure herself out at this in-between age. (An age that I really wish we had more books from, as 12-15 year-old characters often are lost as they fall in-between middle grade and YA.) John is going to MIT to pursue his love of space and science, Suzy has always wanted to be a doctor and proves her skills at one of the campsites, but Vicky isn’t sure exactly who she is and who she wantsto be. She’s beginning to need some independence away from her family, and she’s beginning to discover the less innocent side of the world. This is combined with Vicky’s questioning of her faith. I’m not religious myself, but I know L’Engle was, and I admire how she allows her character to discuss and explore her religious questions, even if it went a bit over my head at sometimes. She isn’t sure if God is always there (she’s particularly shaken by the story of Anne Frank), but through observation and talks with family members, she grows to accept that she won’t always know, and innocent people are hurt based on the choices of others.
Vicky’s uncertainty about her future is also related to the uneasiness of the Cold War era. Zachary has a rather, shall we say, “YOLO” lifestyle. He figures everyone is going to get blown up soon enough, after all, but this worldview makes Vicky uneasy and a bit angry, but she also begins to realize how small her place in the world is. Maybe it’s the history lover in me, but I didn’t find these discussions dated; I think they could be great discussion points for kids reading the book. They even discuss the possibility of man on the moon! (It was published in 1963.) Though there is the line “Daddy doesn’t like women in pants, and Mother never wears them.”
Interesting note: Tesseracts and the adventures of “Meg and Charles Wallace Murray” are mentioned, serving as more of a reference than anything, as I have no clue how Vicky could know about it, unless she read A Wrinkle in Time, but considering how charcters like Zachary cross over between the (The Moon by Night was published a year after A Wrinkle in Time.)
“What I have to tell you, Vicky sweet, is that it never gets any easier. It goes right on being rough forever. But nothing that’s easy is worth anything. You ought to have learned that by now. What happens as you keep on growing is that all of a sudden you realize that it’s more exciting and beautiful than scarey and awful.”
A Ring of Endless Light
And here’s the Newberry Honor winner, the book often referred to as “L’Engle’s best, give or take A Wrinkle in Time“…and it did not disappoint. It’s set a year after The Moon by Night as the Austins spend the summer on the island where their grandfather, now slowly dying of cancer, lives. The novel is most memoable, and can be most accurately explained, by the following element that come together to continue Vicky’s growing-up:
Death: It’s everywhere in this book. It opens with the funeral of a dear family friend, who had died on his job saving Zachary from a suicide attempt. Vicky’s grandfather is slowly and inevitably dying, leaving much pain among the family. Zachary’s mother has recently died (…although she’s a part of a crazy cult that thinks freezing the body will keep it immortal or something), and that isn’t even all the death. The Austins’ emotions felt very real to me, as last year I had a painful staywith my grandfather who was clearly at the end of his time (and indeed, he passed away less than two months later). For instance, the father (who is, bizzarrely, still called “Daddy”) keeps himself distant, Suzy begins to wonder if she can really be a doctor if she is finding caring for her grandfather difficult, Rob is deeply disturbed when he witnesses his grandfather’s nosebleed. Vicky feels a little hopeless, but she and her grandfather continue their deep bond (he helps foster her newfound love of writing poetry, for instance), and he helps her let go…even if he calls her by her mother’s name sometimes. (That was painful, especially as my grandfather did a similar thing.)
Dolphins: A Ring of Endless Light is perhaps most remembered for the telepathic dolphins. Sure, it sounds a bit silly and unusual for L’Engle, who usually reserved the science fiction/fantasy for the Murray-O’Keefe’s, but IT WAS FANTASTIC. The descriptions were magical, and I never knew I loved dolphins so much!! They really became their own characters and were an inventive way for Vicky to explore herself and alleviate some stress. The storyline also perfectly displays L’Engle’s blend of art and science, as Adam (more about him later) believes Vicky can communicate so well with the dolphins because her mind is more artistically inclined.
Relationships: Yeah, Zachary is back (and still troubled), but Vicky also has two more suitors: Adam, a marine biology student working with John and spearhedaing the dolphin project, and Leo, the son of the newly deceased family friend who has taken a liking to Vicky. (They’re all older than her, for some reason.) Vicky is still curious and a bit unsure of what she wants in a relationship. What made this interesting was that she explored all different sides of relationships: she finds kissing intimate with Zachary, talking intimate with Adam, and crying together intimate with Leo. She wants Adam to respect her as an equal, wants something more (read: emotional) out of Zach before she commits to him more physically, and is not ready to talk about marriage at all. She’s still figuring everything out, and it’s a bit confusing and messy, and that’s why I love her and her storyline. (I couldn’t resist the bolding…it’s my main takeaway from the series.)
This was a great way to kick off my exploration of middle grade as well as older MG/YA titles, though I loved it so much that I read more than I anticipated and kind of derailed my reading plans! I especially love it for its thoughtful discussions and Vicky’s messy journey of growing up. L’Engle is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, and I’ll definitely read the other two books I didn’t read yet at some point! I also definitely recommend the audiobooks, though my library’s Overdrive only had the ones for Meet the Austins and A Ring of Endless Light.
What is your L’Engle experience, or are you interested in starting one?