(Revisiting) Revisiting A Wrinkle in Time

[Ed. note: I originally wrote and posted this review in January of 2012. My kids were four and one at the time. This morning, my daughter finished the edition of A Wrinkle in Time I reviewed here, reading the last hundred pages or so in a marathon sitting so we would take her (and her brother) to see Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation today. I’ll try to post some thoughts on the film later today.]


Madeleine L’Engle’s seminal fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time turns 50 this year, and publisher Macmillan is celebrating by releasing a new anniversary edition with oodles of extras, including photos, manuscript pages, and new editorial content. They’ve also initiated a “50 Years, 50 Days,  50 Blogs Celebration Campaign” to promote the new book, and they asked Biblioklept to participate in the first week.

Here is the new cover:

And here is the cover to my beloved, ragged edition:

20120115-162927.jpg

A Wrinkle in Time explores the strange intersections of space and time against a backdrop of adolescent angst. Our intrepid heroine Meg, her child genius brother Charles Wallace, and her would-be beau Calvin O’Keefe, go on a trans-dimensional quest to find her missing physicist father. They are aided (and initiated into) this quest by a trio of immortal women (shades of the Norns); their intergalactic mission finds them encountering angelic centaurs, motherly tentacled beasts, a red-eyed automaton, a disembodied brain, and more more more. Dr. Dad has disappeared while working on a mysterious project involving a tesseract.

Here’s a nifty visualization of the tesseract:

Like a lot of young people, as a child I was deeply fascinated by the concept of “tessering” away to a strange, marvelous, dangerous place, and it was surely this idea that most enthralled me as an early reader of the novel. I was probably ten when I first read the book, which I’m pretty sure was a gift from my aunt who brought it to me while our family was living in New Zealand. I actually wrote my name and our six-digit phone number into the book, which suggests that I loaned it out quite a bit.

20120115-162941.jpg

A Wrinkle in Time gelled with all of the stuff I was reading then: lots of Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and Douglas Adams, but also plenty of crappy Dr. Who novels and lots of execrable fantasy novels. L’Engle’s novels (of course I read all of them after reading Wrinkle; to this day, Many Waters is probably the one that stands out the most, weird and sexy as it was) were of a piece with Tolkien and Lewis (especially Lewis’s oft-overlooked space trilogy)—but there was something distinctly American about L’Engle’s characters—her writing even—that intrigued me. I had spent my entire childhood expatriated and was constantly looking for avenues of American expression, ways “to be American” (yes, I realize how silly that sounds now).

In retrospect, it’s not the tesseract and its fantastical properties that I so recall from A Wrinkle in Time so much as it is L’Engle’s characters, especially mercurial Meg and her future-husband Calvin. While much of literature emphasizes the clash between individual desires and societal conventions, L’Engle’s particular tone and characterization is keenly sensitive to the difficulties adolescents face navigating this conflict. In a sense, L’Engle is working out the early blueprint for what would become the conventions of Young Adult literature. L’Engle wrote a specific brand of sci-fi/fantasy that, on the surface, sets her apart from S.E. Hinton and Robert Cormier—but what these writers share in common, what makes their work so enduring even as society changes, is the essential emotional reality their characters share with readers.

Wrinkle endures also because of its handling of complex themes of conformity, idealism, faith, and science. It’s a book that challenges a youngish audience to read in new ways. It’s also a frequently challenged book—always the sign of something good—suggesting that it’s not going anywhere soon. In this sense, Wrinkle’s literary legacy externally recapitulates its internal themes of nonconformity.

Of course, characterization and strong themes probably wouldn’t get too far with young readers if Wrinkle didn’t deliver the goods that YA readers demand: a good yarn. Wrinkle is spry and engaging at fifty, and while it’s not as bloody as new kid on the block The Hunger Games (the protagonist of which owes some small debt to Meg Murray) it nevertheless negotiates the dangers of existence (both physical and metaphysical) with greater emotional intensity.

But I’ve veered off course here, invoking a newer, more violent YA star at the end of my riff, when what I really want to do is encourage young people who haven’t read Wrinkle yet to pick it up (okay, especially young people who think that Collins’s trilogy is the bee’s knees). It’s a wise, endearing, and enduring classic, one that deserves attention on its golden anniversary.

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Revisiting A Wrinkle in Time

Madeleine L’Engle’s seminal fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time turns 50 this year, and publisher Macmillan is celebrating by releasing a new anniversary edition with oodles of extras, including photos, manuscript pages, and new editorial content. They’ve also initiated a “50 Years, 50 Days,   50 Blogs Celebration Campaign” to promote the new book, and they asked Biblioklept to participate in the first week.

Here is the new cover:

And here is the cover to my beloved, ragged edition:

20120115-162927.jpg

A Wrinkle in Time explores the strange intersections of space and time against a backdrop of adolescent angst. Our intrepid heroine Meg, her child genius brother Charles Wallace, and her would-be beau Calvin O’Keefe, go on a trans-dimensional quest to find her missing physicist father. They are aided (and initiated into) this quest by a trio of immortal women (shades of the Norns); their intergalactic mission finds them encountering angelic centaurs, motherly tentacled beasts, a red-eyed automaton, a disembodied brain, and more more more. Dr. Dad has disappeared while working on a mysterious project involving a tesseract.

Here’s a nifty visualization of the tesseract:

Like a lot of young people, as a child I was deeply fascinated by the concept of “tessering” away to a strange, marvelous, dangerous place, and it was surely this idea that most enthralled me as an early reader of the novel. I was probably ten when I first read the book, which I’m pretty sure was a gift from my aunt who brought it to me while our family was living in New Zealand. I actually wrote my name and our six-digit phone number into the book, which suggests that I loaned it out quite a bit.

20120115-162941.jpg

A Wrinkle in Time gelled with all of the stuff I was reading then: lots of Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and Douglas Adams, but also plenty of crappy Dr. Who novels and lots of execrable fantasy novels. L’Engle’s novels (of course I read all of them after reading Wrinkle; to this day, Many Waters is probably the one that stands out the most, weird and sexy as it was) were of a piece with Tolkien and Lewis (especially Lewis’s oft-overlooked space trilogy)—but there was something distinctly American about L’Engle’s characters—her writing even—that intrigued me. I had spent my entire childhood expatriated and was constantly looking for avenues of American expression, ways “to be American” (yes, I realize how silly that sounds now).

In retrospect, it’s not the tesseract and its fantastical properties that I so recall from A Wrinkle in Time so much as it is L’Engle’s characters, especially mercurial Meg and her future-husband Calvin. While much of literature emphasizes the clash between individual desires and societal conventions, L’Engle’s particular tone and characterization is keenly sensitive to the difficulties adolescents face navigating this conflict. In a sense, L’Engle is working out the early blueprint for what would become the conventions of Young Adult literature. L’Engle wrote a specific brand of sci-fi/fantasy that, on the surface, sets her apart from S.E. Hinton and Robert Cormier—but what these writers share in common, what makes their work so enduring even as society changes, is the essential emotional reality their characters share with readers.

Wrinkle endures also because of its handling of complex themes of conformity, idealism, faith, and science. It’s a book that challenges a youngish audience to read in new ways. It’s also a frequently challenged book—always the sign of something good—suggesting that it’s not going anywhere soon. In this sense, Wrinkle’s literary legacy externally recapitulates its internal themes of nonconformity.

Of course, characterization and strong themes probably wouldn’t get too far with young readers if Wrinkle didn’t deliver the goods that YA readers demand: a good yarn. Wrinkle is spry and engaging at fifty, and while it’s not as bloody as new kid on the block The Hunger Games (the protagonist of which owes some small debt to Meg Murray) it nevertheless negotiates the dangers of existence (both physical and metaphysical) with greater emotional intensity.

But I’ve veered off course here, invoking a newer, more violent YA star at the end of my riff, when what I really want to do is encourage young people who haven’t read Wrinkle yet to pick it up (okay, especially young people who think that Collins’s trilogy is the bee’s knees). It’s a wise, endearing, and enduring classic, one that deserves attention on its golden anniversary.

Yeah Yeah YA — New Novels from Laurence Gonzales and Simon Rich

Once upon a time, young people who were lucky enough to have the leisure to read what they wanted gravitated toward texts like Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Great Expectations. These books weren’t necessarily written for or marketed to teenagers, but they found (and continue to find) a hungry audience in adolescents. The rise of the modern publishing industry saw a way to feed these voracious young readers, and Young Adult–YA–has since solidified into its own genre, complete with its own set of conventions and tropes, found in fantasies, romances, adventures, and sci-fi novels alike. YA tends to enlarge themes that predominate literature as a whole–alienation, isolation, shame, transformation, and (of course) identity. The best YA literature speaks to adolescent fear, channels it into thought experiments and fantasies that help teens to cope with their changing identities. However, YA, like any genre, puts a writer at risk of being ghettoized, of having her own work thrown in with a good many bad books. In recent years, established writers like Sherman Alexie and Nick Hornby have purposefully written YA books and worked to have their books marketed as such, but perhaps many writers don’t want to be pigeonholed into a genre by having their books directed squarely at teens.

I was thinking about this problem today when I read Michiko Kakutani’s somewhat negative review of Laurence Gonzales’s new novel Lucy in the The New York Times. I received a review copy of Lucy back in March and breezed through it in a few afternoons. It’s an enjoyable read with a preposterous plot that somehow doesn’t come across as a gimmick. The eponymous Lucy, you see, is a genetic experiment, a humanzee born of a bonobo and raised in the middle of the jungle by a (not so) mad scientist named Stone until the age of 14, when insurgents murder her erstwhile dad/creator. Lucy is summarily adopted by another scientist, Jenny Lowe, who takes her to Americaland where she learns to be a normal teen. That is, until her super-chimp powers are revealed to the good American people, who come after her, mob-persecution style. Kakutani insists on reading Gonzales’s work as a Frankenstein story, and picks at it for not explaining its science as well as Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. What Kakutani is failing to see is that the novel is not really about scientific hubris–it’s about how hard it is to be a teenager; specifically, it’s about how hard it is to be a teenage girl with a teenage girl body. Kakutani, apparently mistaking books for gravy, also takes Lucy to task for being “lumpy.” If Lucy lacks the finesse, explication, or subtlety that Kakutani would like it to have, then perhaps that is because she misunderstands its audience (to be fair though, Kakutani seems to frequently forget that not all books should be written to her taste).

Again at The New York Times, Tom DeHaven made a similar, if less boorish mistake, earlier this summer in his review of Simon Rich’s début novel Elliot Allagash. Here’s his lede:

If I were in the eighth grade, I’m pretty sure I’d love Simon Rich’s first novel, “Elliot Allagash.” I might even press it on my friends. (“It’s about this 13-year-old evil genius who does whatever he wants because he’s, like, a billionaire. And it’s funny. And short.”) But since more than 45 years have passed since I took up space in a middle school, I simply like it, very much — while wishing this flippant little parable about the puerility of greed had a deeper, sharper bite.

DeHaven wishes Rich’s book had a “deeper, sharper bite” — like Kakutani’s quibble with Gonzales, he wants the kind of acuity that ultimately is not best suited for the eighth and ninth grade boys who will love this book, who will press it on their friends. In my own review of Elliot Allagash, I wrote: “I don’t think that Elliot Allagash is being promoted directly as a Young Adult novel, but it will have a ready audience in the same smart crowd who dig funny, bright novels like C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian .” But even though Elliot Allagash and Lucy aren’t being promoted by their respective publishers Random House and Knopf as YA, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a potential audience of young adults–and it seems impossible to me that seasoned critics like Kakutani and DeHaven could be ignorant of that. Older readers might enjoy Lucy or Elliot Allagash but young readers might love them; critics shouldn’t condescend authors for not overreaching. A pretentious book is a sin and neither of these books is pretentious.