A Wrinkle in Time
The first time I finally cracked open children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle was not under my middle-school bedcovers, clutching a flashlight to read past bedtime. It was on an airplane, traveling home after Christmas. Just a few years ago. (I know, I remain the worst English major ever).
But I did feel transported back to childhood as soon as I started reading. It was at once familiar (the first line is, after all, “It was a dark and stormy night”) and unlike anything I’d ever read – much less like something written in the 1950’s.
Our heroine is unpretty, awkward Meg Murray, who suffers from terrible hair and low self-esteem in spite of being a math whiz (not as sexy when you’re 13, right?). The Murray family is dealing with the lengthy and mysterious disappearance of her dad, a government-employed physicist who has gone AWOL. After a few (highly magical and timelessly old) ladies show up in the neighborhood to sound the alarm, Meg finds herself leading a rescue mission with only the help of her 5-year old brother and a local boy from school.
How do they manage? Space-time-travel, of course.
A Wrinkle in Time unfolds in a way pretty typical of middle grade literature. We follow Meg’s point of view, the story is told chronologically, and it all takes place over a fairly short period of time, centering around one epic adventure. Brainy readers be warned, the prose itself is nothing to make your head work. Rather, the simple structure keeps things accessible for a broad readership.
The plot begins simply: rescue dad. The themes are timeless: love, friendship, and belief. The straightforward writing combined with these inspiring topics makes for a read that’s sometimes intense, sometimes ponderous, and sometimes just plain calls for a laugh. Luckily, these characters know how important it is to find joy and silliness in the face of darkness.
Probably the most fun part of the story are these characters. Including the adult side-characters. They’re neither absent nor dopes (pretty common in kid lit); rather, they are interesting yet fallible, and evoke our empathy from the get-go.
I personally think Meg’s character is among the best in modern literature for its genre. Meg isn’t an always-has-the-right-answer, Hermione-type of gal: she’s prone to fist-fights and bouts of crying, and she loves her tribe more fiercely than anything. L’Engle lets Meg be a mess (who wouldn’t be, in her shoes?). But over and over, Meg is encouraged by others to take control of her destiny, to make a difference where others have failed, and to harness what makes her unique.
So what if she’s angry? “Stay angry, little Meg,” insists Mrs. Whatsit, one of the witches, even though we all grew up learning that girls aren’t supposed to stay angry. Sometimes, you gotta use that anger to help you see thru all the BS that’s happening around you.
This tale of witches, creatures, and clever children is by now one of the most famous fantastical stories ever written. And, fun fact: it almost didn’t get published. Why? Because it broke too many rules! It did too many things. It’s funny and for kids, but deals with hardcore themes like evil and death. It’s got a girl for a hero but the tools of the story are science, math, and quantum physics. In short, A Wrinkle in Time only exists today because our girl L'Engle knew what kind of story she wanted to tell and didn’t back down.
I’m so glad she didn’t.