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In Memoriam: Jane Langton

I first met Jane in the spring of 1975. Invited for lunch, I showed up at her beautiful home in Lincoln determined to make a lasting impression. At Harvard Square I had bought the cheapest flowers I could find — daffodils — and I arrived in her kitchen with twelve dozen daffodils. She called into service every blue vase and pitcher she could lay her hands on, and splashed the room with yellow light. [Bring out from behind the podium the vase of about fifty daffodils.]

At a Children’s Literature New England conference in Cambridge, England thirty years ago, Jane spoke about the passage of time. She observed how you go on from day to day, expecting the sun and the seasons and the weather and the whatnot, and little by little, while noticing the vivid world, you get older and older without quite noticing that, and one fine day you wake up and glance around and discover you’re dead.

Jane looked over the top of her glasses and ducked her chin as she delivered that last word, her sweet thin soprano plunging into a fine, gravelly alto dirge of a note.

Jane was so breezy, even insouciant, that it was easy to overlook that she was powered by a quicksilver, alert, and catholic intellect. Her manner was impromptu and genuine rather than studied, but she planted herself on solid New England granite just like her heroes, Emerson, Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson. Put another way, I might say that though her rhetorical mode was enthusiasm, her subject was the sober truth of things. She was less dryad and more Plato. But it was hard to be sure; like all of us, she was a conundrum. Once she ransacked my husband’s closet to run off with four or five dark sober suit jackets he used to wear back when he was a lawyer. They fit her perfectly and she wore them with jeans and scarves and turtlenecks and sneakers. I think they were a kind of camouflage. Maybe she was trying to disguise how much of a muse she had become to others.

I’ll forego an appreciation of her children’s books — specifically the Hall family stories, powered as they are by the inchoate longings for transcendence that even school-age children can feel. Those books still speak their truths, and Jane’s, on the shelves of the library across the street.

Instead I’ll mention an essay Jane wrote called “The Weak Place in the Cloth.” She was examining the sine qua non of the best fantasy writing for children. Among her samplings, complete with famous illustrations photographed for slides by Bill Langton, were perennial favorites like Mary Poppins, Babar, The Sword in the Stone, Winnie the Pooh. Her delight in these books was orgiastic and infectious.

She arranged her enquiry around three simple questions about the modus vivendi of such works. They were questions a writer starting out to create magic might ask. Three questions. What if? Then what? So what? What if a spider could weave words into her spiderweb, as in Charlotte’s Web? Then what? What would the spider choose to say, and why? And so what? Whose life would be changed, and how, by such a miracle? A riveting fantasy hinges on the successful answering of all three questions.

I find that I want to ask these questions of Jane’s. What if? Then what? So what?

What if the universe were so improbable that it could actually generate someone like Jane Langton? Those of us who cherished her still find it hard to believe. She was a literary incandescence, a one-person festival of appreciation not only of the wild natural world but of its peculiar human society. Jane often wrote people as parodies — she parodied herself as Jane Plankton in one book, and as Miss Brisket the over-earnest Sunday School teacher in another. Her villains were vile, her heroes heroic, but her children were true — not just earnest, but truly children. Once when she taught writing for children, Jane brought in a bunch of snapshots and school photos of a dozen unnamed kids. They were lumpy and toothless and squinting and shy and lovely and had ADHD. “You’re not writing for some ideal child reader, but for real children,” she said, stabbing the stack of photos with a forefinger. “Be readable now.”

WHAT IF one day you wake up and discover that you’re Jane Langton? You have a drive to make things. You want to plant an English garden in unforgiving New England soil. You want to dig out an eighteenth-century stone barn foundation and make it a place for evening parties and musicales. You want to write, and you do, ferociously funny and droll letters complete with drawings. You want to read everything, you want to study art, you want to study the stars. Midway through your life you throw yourself into a course in illustration at the Boston Museum School, and when the assignment requires a book dummy, you write a text to go along with your sample illustrations. You never stop drawing, but drawing in language becomes just as compelling. What if you just write your own books to illustrate?

THEN WHAT? Well, you go on to inspire thousands of kids to read every word you’ve ever written. You open your house to librarians and teachers who come to Boston every summer to study children’s books. You befriend other writers. On the occasion of your death, Katherine Paterson writes: “When I was beginning to think about writing, I used to say, ‘If I ever manage to put pencil to paper, I’d like to be a writer like Jane Langton.’” Katherine is not the only writer to take inspiration from Jane.

But then what? What do you do, Jane, with all that talent? You create stories that are some weird hybrid of dream adventure à la Alice in Wonderland, with a tinge of moral uplift à la George MacDonald; with a sense of weird strong family bonds à la Louisa May Alcott, who is not generally considered a fantasist — except insofar as any 500 page novel about four siblings under one roof that doesn’t include a few scenes where they want to claw one another’s eyes out is a total fantasy.

If you’re Jane Langton, you find a way to rope into your stories the transcendental legacies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The many quotes from their writings liberally sprinkled through the pages of your books aren’t just homages but are essential to the understanding of your plots. You shy from sentimentality while appreciating the pleasures of rounding out a novel with a few convincing moments of tranquility and resolution. You win a Newbery Honor Medal for The Fledgling.

You become a muse, especially to your devoted friends at the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College, and later at Children’s Literature New England. Without Jane, my colleague Barbara Harrison has said often, there would be no Center at Simmons, now in its 44th year; and then there could have been no CLNE. If you’re Jane, you befriend everyone. You drive like a maniac. You like to serve wine at a table dragged out onto your summer lawn, under a chandelier you’ve suspended from a bough of the tree out front.

And SO WHAT? SO WHAT, that Jane Langton came to pass and walked amongst us? The so-what part, for Jane as for everyone who goes to sleep at night and wakes up dead, the so-what part is up to us, the living. So what? So we take Jane with us, in ways secret and profound, obvious and subconscious. Look, there’s been a sighting of Mrs. Truth on the horizon today, somewhere out toward Lynn or Nahant or Logan Airport. She is lifting up her lamp. She is tarnished and the electric cord badly wants replacing, but the light she holds up is brilliant in all senses of the word. Oh, and in her nickel-plated hair she is just smashingly beautiful, by the way. She is wearing an old lawyer’s jacket and sneakers, and, she is enjoining us to cherish the world, as in the final line of her book The Astonishing Stereoscope: Look at that! Right there! Right now!

Adapted from a eulogy delivered February 23, 2019.

Gregory Maguire About Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is the author, most recently, of Egg & Spoon (Candlewick), a 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Honor Book, and a forthcoming novel for adults, After Alice. For twenty-five years he co-directed Children’s Literature New England, which he also helped found.

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Comments

  1. This is so beautifully written. I love Jane Langton’s books, but I knew nothing about her. Now I feel I know her a little. Thank you for giving me something inspiring to read this morning.

  2. Thank you for writing this tribute. I, too, loved Jane Langton’s books. You have deepened my understanding of her work. Please see my remembrance of her at http://www.throughthehourglass.com/2019/02/remembering-jane-langton.html

  3. Yvette Pompa says:

    Thank you, Gregory. This was a lovely read and gave me a nice insight to Jane.

    Yvette Pompa

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