The book is about a girl named Meg who's going through a difficult time. She is struggling at school, not because she isn't smart - she's highly intelligent, just not in a conventional way. She's constantly butting heads with teachers, and she finds herself in a dark, stubborn, angry place much of the time. It doesn't help that her older brothers are popular and seem to sail effortlessly through the social quagmires that baffle her. And beneath all her anger and dissatisfaction is the fact that her father has been away for several years, on a mysterious business trip. At first they'd received letters, but for months now there's only been silence. When she overhears malicious gossip - people are saying he left her mother for another woman - it makes Meg furious. And then there are the people who say mean things about her baby brother, Charles Wallace. Just because he didn't talk till he was almost four does not mean that he "isn't all there," as she'd overheard someone say.
At home, where her mother and Charles Wallace understand her, faults and all, Meg is happier. The book opens, however, on a dark and stormy night - so dark and stormy that Meg fears it is a hurricane. She goes downstairs and finds Charles Wallace waiting for her with a cup of hot cocoa - he always seems to know what she's going to do, what she's thinking, what she needs. He also has a cup of cocoa ready for their mother, who arrives several minutes later, and of them all, he is the least surprised by the sudden appearance of a very strange, uninvited guest: an old woman who appears at the door in the middle of the storm. He introduces her simply as Mrs Whatsit, and she makes herself at home. Before she leaves, though, Mrs Whatsit says something that astonishes Meg's mother but baffles Meg - something about a tesseract.
When Meg follows Charles Wallace to meet Mrs Whatsit the following day - as well as two even more unusual old women, Mrs Who and Mrs Which - Meg embarks on the adventure of her life. Accompanied by Calvin, a boy from school who is quite different from the popular, arrogant boy she'd imagined him to be, and little Charles Wallace, Meg is whisked across space and time in a perilous search for her father.
It is difficult to imagine how close the manuscript for this book came to never seeing publication. Editor after editor rejected it - not because it wasn't good, but because it was so different. In A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L'Engle writes about the struggle she had in finding a publisher for the book, how in one early rejection, the editor "turned it down with one hand while saying that he loved it, but didn't quite dare do it, as it isn't really classifiable." Other rejections simply came as form letters, so quickly that it seemed impossible that the manuscript could have had a fair reading. And then, once the book was finally published, it did of course receive acclaim - winning the Newbery Medal in 1963 - but it also went on to be, according to the ALA, the 22nd most frequently challenged book between 1990 and 2000.
I am always flummoxed by the fact that certain people view books with such suspicion - particularly books that are clearly advocating the need for compassion, to fight against evil and darkness, to uphold the light. L'Engle writes in A Circle of Quiet that many adults simply thought A Wrinkle in Time is too scary for children:
Children still haven't closed themselves off with fear of the unknown, fear of revolution, or the scramble for security. They are still familiar with the vocabulary of myth. It was adults who thought that children would be afraid of the Dark Thing in Wrinkle, not children, who understand the need to see thingness, non-ness, and to fight it.Other objections to the book (according to Banned Books Project) include the fact that Jesus is listed among "the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders," and simply because it "challenges religious beliefs." Again, this is a problem why? Silly me, but I've always thought that religious beliefs were meant to be challenged, evaluated, discussed, examined - blind belief in something without reflection is, I believe, a very dangerous thing. But clearly there are many people who would disagree with me.
At any rate, this book meant so much to me when I was a kid. First of all, it was a science fiction book with a female protagonist, which I had never read before, and because of that it opened up all kinds of possibilities in my mind. It also featured a heroine who had many faults but was still likable, even admirable, who was not beautiful or popular, but who was smart - too smart to fit in well at school. That gave me some insight that I sorely needed at that time. And above all, it was a rip-roaring adventure novel, full of that sense of wonder I still cherish in the books I love, that featured people who felt incredibly real to me. This was the book that set my feet firmly in the direction of science fiction and fantasy, that fed my need to explore things beyond realm of the real and rational, while still dealing with the fundamental truths that are important to me. It was a privilege to share this one with my own children, to see that sense of wonder in their own eyes, and it gave us some great fodder for some very interesting discussions. You might even say that it challenged their beliefs.
A Wrinkle in Time (#1 in the Time Quartet) by Madeleine L'Engle (Dell Yearling, 1962)
Also reviewed at:
Dolce Bellezza: "Who writes like that anymore? Is there such substance in children's books today? In my opinion, not nearly to the extent that Madeleine writes."
Maw Books Blog: "Oh sure, I saw the Christian parallels, appreciated how it didn’t talk down to children, and can see why science fiction and fantasy fans love it. But I’m just not loving it."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "It’s magical, and L’Engle has such a passion in her writing. She has a passion for literature, for words, for other worlds, for the imagination, and for the power of children."
Things Mean a Lot: "A Wrinkle in Time is an intelligent book, the kind of book that does not talk down to children....Madeleine L’Engle is clearly not afraid to expose children to complex ideas."