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November 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Another Look at . . .
One need only look at lists of Newbery Medal winners in the decades prior to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to recognize the novelty of the 1963 committee’s choice. Even today, the relative scarcity of youth science fiction is reflected in more recent crops of medalists, among which Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion (2002) stands as a rare representative of the genre. How much more surprising, then, that the historical and realistic stories dominating the pre-1963 Newbery Medalists came to be joined by a book involving tesseracts, theoretical physics, and, perhaps most startling of all, a heroine at a time when male characters like Tom Swift were most strongly associated with children’s sf.
Certainly, the success of A Wrinkle in Time must have been a shock to the more than 20 publishers who initially rejected the tale of an awkward adolescent, Meg Murry, who must rescue her scientist father from a disembodied brain called IT. Charlotte Jones Voiklis, L’Engle’s granddaughter, recently offered insights about the book’s long journey to print on behalf of her grandmother, who is approaching her ninetieth birthday.
After many rounds of rejection, said Voiklis, L’Engle decided to give up on her manuscript, originally titled Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, after Meg’s three mystical chaperones. What came next is the sort of break most aspiring novelists only dream of: “[L’Engle’s] mother went to the same church as John Farrar [of Farrar, Straus & Giroux], and talked with him about the book at a dinner party. Although Wrinkle had already been rejected by FSG, Farrar had read [L’Engle’s] first novel, The Small Rain (1945), and admired it, and so agreed to read it himself. They published it not because they expected it to be successful, but because they liked it.”
In hindsight, it’s not so difficult to imagine why the time was ripe for A Wrinkle in Time; having been released the same year as the Cuban missile crisis, and in the thick of the race to land a man on the moon, a novel that projected youngsters into space to fight a looming “Dark Thing” must have plugged directly into children’s most immediate interests and concerns. (In a fan letter from 1963, one fifth-grader even noted that IT reminded her of Khrushchev.)
But many novels that precisely fit their moment eventually age into quaint set pieces, while Wrinkle has endured through 69 hardcover printings (and numerous paperback, audio, and audiovisual formats) to enjoy its forty-fifth anniversary this year. The occasion is being marked in style by Square Fish books, Holtzbrinck Publishing’s debut reprint line, which will be releasing paperback editions of Wrinkle and its sequels in two formats, with two sets of new covers, and marketing bells and whistles such as a Web site and teacher’s-edition giveaways. (They’re also being launched, at L’Engle’s request, as the Time Quintet, as opposed to the original quartet; the series now concludes with An Acceptable Time, 1989).
Jean Feiwel, senior vice president and publisher of Square Fish, says that she sees the relaunch of Wrinkle as an opportunity to bring the limelight back to an author who may have been overshadowed by the Harry Potter–fueled “onslaught of fantasy,” citing the book’s mix of genres—the very thing that gave its earliest readers pause—as one of its major strengths. As Feiwel puts it, “Wrinkle wasn’t a book for children, and it wasn’t a book for adults, and it was kind of unreal, and it just didn’t fall into any existing category. So she who couldn’t be classified became a class by herself.”
Susan Chang, senior editor of the children’s and young adult division at Tom Doherty Associates (a leading publisher of fantasy and sf), agrees, explaining that the term science fantasy, rather than science fiction per se, best suits L’Engle’s creative approach. “She was doing something so unusual that it didn’t spawn many imitators; it remains as original today as when it was published in 1962. The only person I can think of who would be comparable is William Sleator [Interstellar Pig, 1984, and others], in that L’Engle took real scientific concepts—like the tesseract, or mitochondria in A Wind in the Door —and wove them into amazing stories.”
Given A Wrinkle in Time’s groundbreaking qualities, it’s no surprise that the book had an impact on many contemporary writers of sf/fantasy.
Diane Duane, author of numerous sf novels for adults as well as her Young Wizards series for children, said that she would have been one of L’Engle’s first-generation readers: “My preferences were gradually being skewed toward a more scientifically oriented side of fantasy by books like Eleanor Campbell’s Mushroom Planet series,” she recalls. “I was (unknowingly) hunting for . . . the shadow of something larger, deeper, and more important leaning over the mere circumstance of story: a sense of imminence. When I picked up A Wrinkle in Time, I knew I was really onto something, on both counts.”
Scott Westerfeld, whose Uglies trilogy imagines a world of enforced conformity that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Planet Camazotz, likewise encountered Wrinkle as a child. “It won the Newbery the same year I was born. I read it a decade later, and three decades further on still shiver as Meg puts on those glasses and sees the awful truth of her world. I try to give all of my protagonists some version of that moment,” he said.
For his part, William Sleator admits to reservations about some aspects of A Wrinkle in Time. “I believe that in reality you can say ‘I love you’ a million times and it will not kill the evil brain controlling that other planet,” he said, referring to the climactic showdown between Meg and IT. What he admires, though, is L’Engle’s portrayal of Meg’s scientific family. “I seem to remember that [Meg’s] mother made stew over a Bunsen burner in her lab, which is a great touch.”
And what about children today—those who may have Duane’s, Westerfeld’s, Sleator’s, and other, newer works of science fiction to choose from? Are they still greeting A Wrinkle in Time enthusiastically, despite dated elements (such as those enormous punch card computers on Camazotz)? Yes, said Andrew Medlar, Youth Materials specialist at the Chicago Public Library.
“This is one of those books where you can tell if someone has read it by how their eyes light up when you mention the title,” Medlar says. “It’s such a great combination of so many things, all of which appeal to different types of people and readers.” His library’s circulation figures back up these personal impressions: “It definitely is one of the most popular Newbery titles that we have in the collection.”
Of course, the book has less enthusiastic interpreters as well; Wrinkle landed at number 22 on the ALA’s Top 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1999–2000. Fond readers may have difficulty imagining where the troubles lies—Meg and her friend Calvin share only the most chaste of romances, and the book reflects L’Engle’s own strong spirituality (at one point, Mrs. Who reassures Meg with verses from I Corinthians).
“I’ve never understood it,“ said Voiklis, ”but Wrinkle’s challengers object to the three Mrs. Ws and the Happy Medium because they think they are thought to be witches and involved in black magic.” She also remembers controversy over a scene where the children are naming people who have fought the darkness, and non-Christians are named. “One foreign-language publisher wanted permission to add ‘but Jesus was the best,’” said Voiklis. “That permission was not forthcoming!”
Not surprising, given the book’s central message about preserving intellectual and creative freedom over “totalitarian, absolutist, and fundamentalist thinking on any level” (Voiklis’ words.) Indeed, in an era of No Child Left Behind controversy, L’Engle’s comments in her Newbery acceptance speech have the same timeless resonance as her fiction: “There are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin.”
Its resistance to conclusions that pop fully formed from the muffin tin may be one of the secrets to A Wrinkle in Time’s resilience—that, along with its perennially reassuring message about the ability of frail humans to avert doomsday. As Voiklis reflected, “Wrinkle doesn’t offer answers, but I think it does offer people who are trying to understand their place in the universe a model for how to ask questions, and how to listen, and how to live joyfully in the midst of struggle.”
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