For us Baby Boomers, the first great young adult book released in our lifetime was Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time, a timeless story of an unlikely young heroine who summons the wondrous power of love to defeat the darkness of evil.
However, despite its success upon publication in 1960, the unique science fiction tale, filled with tesseracts (the time wrinkle in the title) and ancient star-being characters with names like Mrs. Whasit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, the book was rejected by 26 publishers before it was finally picked up by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The rejections focused on the fact that the book was something new and hard to classify. Was it for children or adults? And if it was for children, how would they be able to understand the symbols and difficult hard science in the book? And was the tale a Christian parable about love or an allegorical warning about the conformist dangers of totalitarianism? And what about those strange characters like The Man with Red Eyes, the pulsing, robot-like giant brain IT, and the malevolent The Black Thing?
L’Engle’s granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis says the book’s ambiguity was deliberate and part of its lasting power. According to Voiklis, her grandmother “wrote for people. She didn’t write for children or adults.”
Literary scholar Jean Fulton concurred, explaining further: “L’Engle’s fiction is considered important partly because she was among the first to focus directly on the deep delicate issues young adults must first face such as death, social conformity, and truth. L’Engle’s work always is uplifting because she is able to look at the surface values of life from a perspective of wholeness, both joy and pain, transcending each to uncover the absolute nature of human experience that they share.”
Now, 58 years after it first appeared, A Wrinkle in Timeis enjoying a spectacular renaissance, a revival guaranteed to garner the story even greater worldwide acclaim. First, Disney has just released a $100 million version of the story. In November, more celebrations are being scheduled for the 100thanniversary of L’Engle’s birth. And currently, her two granddaughters – Charlotte Voiklis and Lena Roy are on a book tour discussing Becoming Madeline: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time By Her Granddaughters, which details L’Engle’s life from birth until the 1960 release of A Wrinkle in Time.
The biography is based primarily on letters, journals, and poems L’Engle kept from her younger years. “Obviously, her voice was so recognizable to us,” Charlotte said when the duo appeared at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC. “Everybody has parts (of their lives) that they might want to paper over. But we wanted to write about both our grandmother’s faults and strengths. In that respect, we are our grandmother’s granddaughters”.
Although the main reason for the biography was to familiarize readers with L’Engle’s early life, the last few pages deal with her most successful book, which won the prestigious Newberry Award for best children’s book.
Literary critics have long debated how A Wrinkle in Timefirst became, and still remains, so popular. Roy has her theory: “We’re all hungry to learn how to be. Our grandmother wrote about how do people become who they are”.
One of the great strengths of the book is its fully detailed characterizations of Meg Murray, her precocious baby brother Charles Wallace, and her fellow schoolmate Calvin, all outsiders who become engaged in a battle with the evil mind of IT. Both granddaughters said their grandmother’s writing was often autobiographical. She drew on her life and the lives of her family and friends. “She would say she was Meg,” Voiklis said. “But she would also say she had no idea where some of her characters came. She said the three witches came to her from a trip she was taking in a western desert”.
Like Meg, young Madeline, despite immense creativity and talent, wasn’t successful in grade school. “Her teachers thought she was stupid and she lived up to their expectations,” Voiklis said. L’Engle turned inward. “She was alone a lot as a child. She had her books and her poems and soon she started writing,” Roy explained.
Both granddaughters said they shared a special bond with their grandmother. They were always invited to L’Engle’s writing studio over the garage, which the family called The Ivory Tower. There they would read their own books while their grandmother worked.
Obviously, the book is immensely popular with young girls encountering the problems that come with pre-teen and teenage years. L’Engle understood those problems well. She was a staunch feminist before the label was invented. “She was ambitious when ambitious women were not real popular,” Voiklis said. Her sister agreed. “She changed the face of women in literature”.
The book, which I first read at age 8 and remains my favorite young adult novel, is one of the most controversial classics ever written. It is number 23 on the American Library Association’s List of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, with reasons for its banning including the claim that it challenges religious beliefs, and, conversely, that it is too religious.
However, it continues to be taught in classrooms and read by thousands of children around the world. It has been named by the National Education Association as one of its Teachers Top 100 Books for Children. It was also chosen as a Top 100 Chapter Books in the School Library Journal. A Wrinkle in Timewas the first of five books L’Engle wrote about the Murray family, now collectively known as The Time Quintet.
L’Engle, who died in 2007, always challenged her readers to find the courage to discover who they were meant to be, no matter how hard that task might seem. In 1972, in A Circle of Quiet, she wrote:
“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still a part of me, and always will be. Because I was once a rebellious student, there is and always will be in me the student crying out for reform.
“This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages … but they are to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide; my past is part of what make the present Madeline and must not be denied or rejected or forgotten.”