Books News & Features
Mon March 5, 2012
The Unlikely Best-Seller: 'A Wrinkle In Time' Turns 50
Imagine, for a moment, that you're a publisher hearing a pitch about a children's book whose tangled plot braids together quantum physics, fractions and megaparsecs (a measure for distances in intergalactic space). The book also casually tosses out phrases in French, Italian, German and ancient Greek. Sound like the next kids' best-seller to you?
It didn't to the many publishers who rejected Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which turns 50 this year. The novel was an immediate hit with young readers and with critics when it was published, and it won the Newbery Medal in 1963. Since then, it has remained a beloved favorite of children and adults alike.
But it almost didn't see the light of day. At the time, L'Engle already had six books to her name, but publishers were perplexed by her latest.
L'Engle's granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, describes the publishers' befuddlement to All Things Considered host Melissa Block: "Was it for adults, was it for children? What is this, science fiction? Oh, I know what science fiction is, but there aren't female protagonists in science fiction. Are you sure you want to talk about good and evil — isn't that a little bit philosophical? Can't you just cut that part out?"
Despite considerable misgivings, Farrar, Straus and Giroux bought the book. They sent it to an outside reader, who called it "the worst book I have ever read." The book's editor admitted it was "distinctly odd" but conceded: "I for one believe that the capabilities of young readers are greatly underestimated."
His faith in young readers paid off. There are currently 10 million copies of the book in print.
What is it, 50 years on, that continues to appeal to children and makes adult fans positively vibrate when they talk about the book? Maybe its appeal lies in its unusual heroine, Meg Murry, who is insecure, outspoken, "outrageously plain" — and irresistible.
Voiklis says her grandmother put a lot of herself into Meg. "She really was Meg. In the same impetuous, passionate, stubborn, loving way that Meg is, she was."
Or maybe readers thrill to the creepiness of the planet Camazotz, where Meg has to go to rescue her father. With its shades of totalitarianism — Camazotz is ruled by IT, a disembodied, quivering brain that insists on conformity — the dismal planet recalls the Cold War era in which the book was written.
The success of A Wrinkle in Time hasn't immunized it from criticism, however. Critics have attacked its theological themes, some calling it blasphemous, others complaining it's too religious for a children's book.
"I still don't understand it, and maybe that's because it always confused Grandmother — that it would be vilified both by the Christians and by secular folks who thought that there was too much overt Christianity," Voiklis says.
The publishers who rejected the book insisted that children would be put off by the book's complicated, elliptical plot and concepts, but for author Rebecca Stead, the ambiguous aspects are what make the story so compelling.
In Stead's own children's book, When You Reach Me, the main character has read A Wrinkle in Time about a hundred times and won't read anything else. Stead says she could never really wrap her mind around all the time travel stuff in L'Engle's book, but to her, it didn't matter.
"A Wrinkle in Time also asks these huge questions, really, about the universe, and good and evil, and the power of love, and all of this crazy science and complex ideas. It assumes that kids are able to think about all that stuff. I think that a lot of people forget that, or never realize it, but a children's book is really the best place to ask big questions. Our worlds get smaller as we get older," Stead says.
Voiklis agrees that the publishers erred in assuming children weren't interested in stories that were so complex — semantically, morally and narratively.
"Even if a young reader doesn't know all of the words, or know who all of the quotations are from, or if they can't grasp exactly what a tesseract is ... it sort of gives room for the reader and shows possibility and a place where you want to go and understand," Voiklis says. "[L'Engle] didn't think condescending to children was the right thing to do."
And 50 years after it was published, L'Engle's unapologetically erudite novel continues to challenge and captivate — and Calvin O'Keefe, Meg Murry and her younger brother Charles Wallace take another generation on their unforgettable cosmic journey.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
We're marking the 50th anniversary of a children's classic that's still devoured and puzzled over in reading nooks and classrooms.
KEVIN THOMPSON: So we got Mrs. Whatsit, what about the 2nd character that we met?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Mrs. Who.
THOMPSON: Mrs. Who, OK. What did we learn about Mrs. Who?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: That her glasses are thick.
THOMPSON: Yes, she has thick glasses. What kind of...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: She has spectacles.
THOMPSON: They call them spectacles, very good. What else is...
BLOCK: That's Kevin Thompson leading his eighth grade class at Oxon Hill Middle School in Maryland through Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time." It's a book that starts with a wink to a literary cliche.
MADELEINE L'ENGLE: (Reading) It was a dark and stormy night.
BLOCK: It takes readers through the fifth dimension and ends with a daughter rescuing her father, helped by three supernatural spirits.
L'ENGLE: (Reading) They never learned what it was that Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which had to do, for there was a gust of wind and they were gone.
BLOCK: That's Madeleine L'Engle, the late author, reading from her book. It was published in 1962. L'Engle first got the idea on a cross-country trip, driving through the Painted Desert with her family.
CHARLOTTE JONES VOIKLIS: The names Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which popped into her head. And she turned around and said to her kids in the back seat: I'll have to write a book about them.
BLOCK: And that's Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis, who says just three months later, the book was written.
VOIKLIS: What the struggle was, was trying to get it published.
BLOCK: L'Engle already had six books to her name. But with this one, she got rejection after rejection. Publishers just couldn't figure her book out.
VOIKLIS: Was it for adults? Was it for children? What is this, science fiction? Oh, I know what science fiction is, but there aren't female protagonists in science fiction. Are you sure you want to talk about good and evil? Isn't that a little bit philosophical? Can't you just cut that part out?
BLOCK: No, she couldn't. Long story short, the publisher Farrar Straus and Giroux bought the book with misgivings. They sent it to an outside reader, who called it "the worst book I have ever read." The book's editor admitted it was distinctly odd and demanding. But, he said: I, for one, believe that the capabilities of young readers are greatly underestimated. And he was right.
"A Wrinkle in Time" was an immediate hit with young readers and with critics. It won the Newbery Medal in 1963. There are 10 million copies in print. So, what is it about this book? What is it, 50 years on, that continues to pull in young readers and that makes adult fans positively vibrate when they talk about it? Maybe the book's appeal lies in those three witchy beings.
L'ENGLE: (Reading) Suddenly, the three of them were there, Mrs. Whatsit with her pink stole askew; Mrs. Who with her spectacles gleaming; and Mrs. Which, still little more than a shimmer.
BLOCK: Or maybe it's the unusual heroine - Meg Murry - insecure, outspoken, and outrageously plain.
VOIKLIS: She looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror and made a horrible face, baring a mouthful of teeth covered with braces.
BLOCK: Charlotte Voiklis says her grandmother put a lot of herself into Meg.
VOIKLIS: She really was Meg. In the same impetuous, passionate, stubborn, loving way that Meg is, she was.
BLOCK: Or maybe readers thrill to the creepiness of the evil planet Meg has to go to, to rescue her father Camazotz, which is ruled by IT - the disembodied, quivering brain that forces everyone to be exactly alike.
L'ENGLE: (Reading) No wonder the brain was called IT. It was the most horrible, the most repellent thing she had ever seen, far more nauseating than anything she had ever imagined with her conscious mind or that had ever tormented her in her most terrible nightmares.
BLOCK: Remember, the book was published in 1962, the height of the Cold War. The dismal totalitarian planet would echo in the imagination. "A Wrinkle in Time" confronts readers with the notion of tessering to the fifth dimension, the tesseract - that's the wrinkle in time. There's discussion of fractions, and megaparsecs, and physics. There are phrases tossed out in French, Italian, Geman, ancient Greek. It's a lot to take in.
Again, Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughter, Charlotte Voiklis.
VOIKLIS: Even if a young reader doesn't know all of the words - or know who all the quotations are from or if they can't grasp exactly what a tesseract is - and I find it still very difficult to wrap my head around dimensions and how that actually works...
BLOCK: You do?
VOIKLIS: Yes, I do.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: Good to know.
VOIKLIS: But, again, it sort of gives room for the reader and shows possibility and a place where you want to go and understand. She didn't think condescending to children was the right thing to do.
BLOCK: As hugely popular as "A Wrinkle in Time" has been over the last 50 years, it's also been really controversial. Criticized for being, you know, at the same time blasphemous, heretical and too religious.
VOIKLIS: I still don't quite understand it, and maybe that's because it always confused my grandmother that it would be vilified both by the Christians and by secular folks who thought that there was too much overt Christianity in the book.
L'ENGLE: (Reading) Listen, Meg. Listen well. The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how...
VOIKLIS: She would just raise her hands up and say but this is the story, this is what happened. People often want to pit religion and science against each other. You either believe in God or you believe in science. And, for her, again, that was a totally ridiculous notion. That, for her, science really helped her believe in a benevolent God.
REBECCA STEAD: There is something about "A Wrinkle in Time" that just sort of cast a spell on me.
BLOCK: That's author Rebecca Stead, whose own children's book "When You Reach Me" is also about time travel and refers directly to "A Wrinkle in Time."
STEAD: I had loved it in a bigger way, in a deep, deep way.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: Rebecca Stead says she could never really wrap her mind around the whole tessering time travel stuff either, but that didn't matter.
STEAD: "A Wrinkle in Time" also asks these huge questions, really, about the universe, and good and evil, and the power of love and all of this crazy science and complex ideas. It assumes that kids are able to think about all that stuff. I think a lot of people forget that or never realize it. But a children's book is really the best place to ask big questions. You know, our worlds get smaller as we get older in a lot of ways.
BLOCK: What do you think, when you read "A Wrinkle in Time" now, 50 years after it was published, do you think it's aged well?
STEAD: You know, maybe I can't judge whether it's aged well, because I think pretty much every time I read this book, I read it as a 12-year-old. And when I was 12, I didn't want to pull books apart, I wanted them to work. I wanted them to take me somewhere. And so, I wasn't picking at them because, you know, if you pick, you know, then you sort of destroy the illusion and you can't get a good ride.
THOMPSON: All right, we begin with chapter three.
BLOCK: Back at Oxon Hill Middle School, the eighth graders are taking that ride, enthusiastically surfing over that wrinkle in time.
THOMPSON: And what is a tesseract again? A wrinkle in time. OK, so a tesser, she says, is the same thing as a wrinkle.
BLOCK: Maybe they can wrap their minds around that fifth dimension, maybe not. But either way, 50 years after it was published, Madeleine L'Engle's book continues to challenge and confuse and captivate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.