I was shocked yesterday to wake up to the news that Robert Jordan had passed away. I’m sad to say my reaction, even years after giving up on his opus work The Wheel of Time, was “Oh my God, he actually did die before he finished!” In Jr. High and High School, as I was voraciously devouring his series, my friends and I spoke ominously about the possibility of him dying before writing the last book. To a 14 year old, he looked so old, and surely his demise must be imminent. Yet he kept extending his series further and further until it seemed he would never complete it. Now, learning he has passed away in his late 50’s, I am heartbroken to think how much more he probably had in him.
I didn’t stick it out until the end, because the series lost its way some time after the 6th volume, but when I found it it was just about the best thing I had ever read. To a teenage boy, those first 6 volumes were the ultimate epic badassary, filled with awesome magic and glowy-eyed bad guys and Objects of Mysterious but Enormous Power. It had a hero destined to go mad and heroes friends who were bigger badasses than the hero himself. It was the cat’s meow. It was the tits.
So while I can’t defend Jordan’s later works, I can’t deny the power his early volumes had over me. His death is a sad moment in the field of fantasy. By all accounts he was a generous and supportive member of the community, and his massive, multi-volume work opened the doors to anyone who had a Long Story to tell. Sure, that kind of change is a double edged sword, but I’ll take the good with the bad. If I make it as a fantasy writer, I’ll have Jordan and his effect on the industry partially to thank. His writing gave me a passion for the genre no one else did. Not even Tolkien. When I finally started writing my First Crap Fantasy Novel, I did it because of the manic energy that reading The Wheel of Time gave me for the craft.
Then, as I was looking up news of Jordan’s passing I found something else. Madeline L’Engle had died as well. As is my strange nature, I came to L’Engle’s young adult works well after reading more adult works by Stephen King and George Orwell. I read A Wrinkle in Time in elementary school, but it didn’t have much effect on me at the time. In fact, it wasn’t until my second year of college that I came back to her work and fell in love with it.
I took a class called Coming of Age Fiction. I couldn’t tell you exactly what I expected out of that class, but what I got was most definitely not it. No, it wasn’t some high-minded Literature style coming of age fiction, but books for kids! I was pissed. I didn’t pay for a college class to read stuff out of the Young Adult section. I looked at the reading list and saw only one thing that I actually respect: The Hobbit. The rest was a mix of crap below a real reader like myself. It was a travesty!
Like so many times in life, I was flat-out, 100% wrong. Our Big Assignment for the class was a presentation on one young adult author. I chose Madeline L’Engle, since – still feeling superior to the material in the class – she was the only author I could think of that I remembered fondly from my childhood. So I grabbed a half-dozen of her novels and started to read.
By the end of the class, I had not only fallen in love with L’Engle’s writing, but become a wholehearted evangelist of young adult fiction. I can’t explain what it was about her work that changed me, but it happened quickly. Could it have been as early as A Wrinkle in Time? Maybe. It wasn’t during A Wind in the Door, the second and only mediocre novel of her Wrinkle series. But it might have been after A Swiftly Tilting Planet, not only the best titled novel of the series, but also a dark and maturely apocalyptic tale unlike anything I’ve read. Certainly Many Waters would have done the trick if I hadn’t already come around. To take the biblical story of Noah and come out with a novel that not only didn’t suck, but may have been the best of the series was the feat of a honest to god writer.
If Jordan gave me my passion for fantasy and for writing, L’Engle pushed me down the path of treating “young adult” literature as equal to everything else. More than any other writers, these two are responsible for who I am as a writer right now. I have other influence. I may even have more accomplished influences. But I’m writing Young Adult Fantasy right now, and I’m writing it because of them.
I’ll miss both of them. Jordan for the love of fantasy he passed along to me through his novels, and L’Engle for the most important lesson I’ve learned as a writer: there is gold on any shelf. Never judge a book by its genre.