Beyond her canonical novel A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle, who would have celebrated her 77th birthday yesterday, created one of the most complex, interconnected literary universes committed to paper. The author was a religious Christian, but unlike C.S. Lewis adhered to an ultra-liberal strain of her faith that, as manifested in her novels, has gotten her books in hot water with school boards across the country.
L’Engle’s three main YA series feature the Murry family (Wrinkle protagonist Meg and her siblings), the O’Keefe clan (Meg and Calvin’s daughter Polly), and the Austin family. Unlike the universe-hopping Murrys and O’Keefes, the Austins don’t travel through tesseracts to other times or enter each other’s cells, but there are so many characters that go back and forth between the three series — including cute potential boyfriends Adam Eddington and Zachary Grey — that they all essentially comprise one expanded universe, encompassing many genres: realism, fantasy, murder mysteries, and science fiction.
One of the benefits of L’Engle’s need to revisit characters over and over again is the peek that readers get at their fates. Meg Murry, for instance, the precocious nerd-girl heroine of A Wrinkle in Time, ends up the mother to a whole brood of kids, with some serious regrets about her career — while her husband, Wrinkle‘s jock Calvin O’Keefe, is a famous scientist. Subtle gender oppression is real, and cloyingly happy endings are elusive. L’Engle’s novels frequently deal with death, religion, and sexuality, which keeps them on many banned books lists, decades later. They’re fantasy stories, but not fairy tales.
Here is a loose ranking of all the books in this expanded universe, from “you absolutely must read it if you missed it” to “read it only if you’re obsessed with the author’s work.” (Also worth exploring: L’Engle’s darker, sophisticated grown-up novels.)