I have a web site devoted to one of my favorite writers, Madeleine L'Engle. Most of the site is bibliography, but I also have a FAQ page and some other stuff. Sometimes a year goes by without my updating it, but that doesn't stop people from emailing me their questions and updates about L'Engle and her books.
At the top of the main page, in large, unfriendly letters, is a note saying that I am not Madeleine L'Engle, that it is not possible to send email to Madeleine L'Engle through my site or anywhere else, and that I'm not going to do anyone's homework for them. Nevertheless, I get at least one email a year meant for the writer herself, a handful of emails from adults with sophisticated or obscure information, questions, or shared appreciation of the material, and many emails requesting help with homework. These requests range from college-level questions about censorship, spirituality and religious background all the way down to blatant attempts to write a book report about A Wrinkle in Time without reading the book.
Here are some actual emails from the past two years. See for yourself!
My name is ... I am from ... and I am in the 7th grade at .... My teacher has given me some extra credit stuff to help bring my grades up. If you can help would you mind answering there questins for me?
1) Where was she born? and when?
2) Where did she grow up?
3) Where does she live now? (just the state)
4) What did she like to do in school?
5) Did she go to college? If so, where?
6) What book is she most famous for? (Wrikle in Time?)
7) How many books has she writen?
I would appreciate this so much if you would do this for me. If you could get this e-mail back to me by May 10th or sooner that would be fabulous. This biography os due May 12th.
[I told the kid to get the answers off my main and FAQ pages.]
I am trying to find out who did the original cover art for A Wind in the Door. I keep running across editions with the more recent art. If you happen to have that information, could you please pass it along to me. Thank you very much.
[I pulled my fifth printing off the shelf and gave him the name. He promptly thanked me.]
I am doing a report and i was wondering if Madeleine L'Engle is still alive???
Hello! I am doing a research paper on Madeline L'Engle. The research I'm doing is I have to read a book by her, some short stories and also poems. Then I have to get criticism on Madeline L'Engle. I have looked and looked on the web for her short stories and poems but I just haven't had any luck. I saw on here you mentioned her other works but I still couldn't find them. Can you please email me back and let me know where I could find these. Thanks a lot!
[It's not always clear to me whether people are looking in bookstores and libraries, or trying to read everything online, which you can't really do with living authors because of copyright. But I have a whole section called "Where to Find the Books".]
Dear Karen Funk: Does MAdeleine L'Engle have any grandchildren? If so who are they? Do any of them have Kids?
[Check the FAQ page. I don't know much about the detailed family tree offhand, though, and don't care to research it. I may have looked it up anyway, though.]
Can you explain to me what the IT is ,what it does etc.
[This is when I'm tempted to say, "Read the book, kid," and usually do. But I'll usually break down and give the kid a hint as well, in case he or she read but did not quite comprehend.]
I am 12 and my English teacher assigned us a biography that we had to do on a famous author. I decided to do Madeleine L'Engle and I was reading your web site which was very helpful, thanks. I am writing to you because I wanted to ask you a few questions. I know that you are NOT Madeleine L'Engle so if you do not know the answers I understand. These questions are not in the FAQ page. My first question is why does Madeleine write? What motivates her? Next has there been any writers who influenced her? Who and why? Next questions where does she get her ideas for books from? If you could write back to me that would be great. I understand if you are too busy and don't reply. Thanks for all your effort on your helpful web site. It is appreciated.
[This is the sort of email that makes me either go out of my way to help, or shelve it because I don't have time to deal with it properly. Usually I'll take the time. This student obviously bothered to read the web site, and deserves to be rewarded for that.]
There are many more I could quote from, but you get the idea. One kid posed as a teacher, and asked me misspelled, ungrammatical book report questions. Real teachers ask about the tv movie and other possible teaching aids. Fans ask me about Meg Murry's age in the different books, and discrepancies in ages and dates. Collectors tell me about obscure editions of things. Other people tell or ask me about L'Engle's health issues (she is in her eighties).
In one sense, this is why I started The Tesseract. I wanted to provide information on L'Engle and her books, especially the stuff of interest to me personally. I'm certainly doing that, even now, but over the years it's become a burden. I'm been so busy with school and the novels and the blogs and church and John and cars and career pursuits that I don't have time to read my 55+ L'Engle books, let alone write aboout them, or help kids with their homework.
Now, here's what really bothers me about all this.
When I was in junior high and high school, I didn't always read the entire book that was assigned. Either I would run short of time, or I'd be distracted with something else, or the book would just be too boring and annoying to struggle though. (I hated The Scarlet Letter.) So I'd read part of it, flip through the rest, and then sit in class and fake my way through. I would usually learn enough from the teacher and the class discussion to fill in the blanks. I'm not proud of this behavior, but there it is. Then when it came time to write a paper, I'd work from what I knew, and maybe catch up on the reading some more, at least in spots.
Now, though, it seems that many kids try to use the Internet to skip the reading and research entirely. If they can get me to answer the teacher's questions, they don't need to read or understand the book. They don't even need to read the web pages that contain the answers they seek. What they don't realize it that they're cheating themselves. They're missing out on a great book, limiting their horizons, learning bad academic habits, hurting their grades, and ending up ignorant and illiterate. Would the seventh grader with the extra credit questions be more able to spell, structure a sentence, and get her grades up if she read more? I'd like to think so.
But do I have the moral authority to tell the kids to read the books, think for themselves, and do their own homework? Well, I try, despite my own checkered academic history. And if I tell them, will they believe me? No, probably not. And meanwhile, I've barely started studying for my CPA exam. No, I've got very little moral high ground here--and what I've got is slippery!