While I was home this weekend, I did one of my regular dives into the bookshelves of my youth and surfaced with Madeline L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light. Vicky Austin seems very young to me now, and the book short-shrifts teenage sexual desire, I think. But it’s still remarkable how much L’Engle expects of her target readers: the book is full of complex discussions of science, theology, and morality, hinges significantly on challenging poetry, and is full of references to different poetic forms. Some of these are details that young readers could gloss over, of course—it’s not actually significantly important to the novel that readers fully understand the kinds of poems Vicky considers when she sits down to right. But the book feels richer if you do.
I think it’s striking to me, because some of the megaseries aimed at young people of recent years have asked quite a bit less. The Harry Potter universe contains all kinds of delightful in-jokes and references for people in the know, but it hinges on rather simple understandings of good, evil, and familial love, both sealed by blood and by choice. There’s a sense in which it operates like most animated movies do today, keeping audiences engaged and entertained on different levels. I think one of the reasons the Twilight books, apart from the thing that vexed me about them, didn’t feel very interesting is that while Bella’s supposed to be super-smart, she’s not actually reading anything particularly sophisticated, or performing at a particularly high level in her school. The books would have been better if they’d surrounded Bella with more complex ideas and had her engage with more complex literature, because she would have seemed more plausibly special and sophisticated.
In a way, A Ring of Endless Light is kind of the book I wish Twilight had been. Vicky thinks she’s less pretty than her sister, but she still ends up with three men competing for her affections. She’s got dolphin-triggered ESP, which is a lot more useful than super-tasty-smelling blood. She’s got an attachment to her family that isn’t easily discarded in favor of something more glamorous, and gives back as much to everyone in her life at least as much as she receives. In other words, she’s a worthy object of that competition in her own right, grappling with the world instead of being desperate to escape it, or transcend it.