Madeleine L’Engle’s classic book A Wrinkle in Time celebrates its 50th anniversary this week with a sumptuous new edition. It includes photos and biographical information about L’Engle, an introduction by US Ambassador for Children’s Literature Katherine Paterson, discussion questions, pages of the original manuscript, L’Engle’s thoughtful and inspiring Newbery acceptance speech, and an essay by L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis.
L’Engle’s book was turned down by a number of publishers because it did not fit into any genre. It is the story of a teenaged loner named Meg Murray and her precocious little brother Charles Wallace who travel to another planet to rescue their scientist father. It has elements of science fiction, religion, science and mathematics, adventure, coming of age, family drama, and some teen romance. When it was finally published, it was an instant classic and it was awarded the highest prize in children’s literature, the Newbery medal. It led to four sequels and continues to be loved by each generation of children.
Dr. Voiklis spoke to me about her grandmother and the origins of the book and about L’Engle’s faith, which is the subject of some of her books, including Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art and The Irrational Season.
I love A Wrinkle in Time. I read it as a kid and then I read it aloud to my children.
My grandmother wrote it in her early 40’s. She always described her 30’s as a decade of rejection, very hard for her. She felt nothing she wrote was getting published. She and her family were living in northwestern Connecticut and she wasn’t your typical housewife or a published writer making money and she had intense guilt about that. She started writing A Wrinkle in Time during a period of transition when they were moving back to New York, a period of transition. And she first got the image of Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Who when they were driving through the Painted Desert area. The landscape was just so otherworldly. She said herself that she really couldn’t explain it except that it came during a period of transition and doubt and that it was a way of affirming a vision of the universe in which she wanted to believe.
I was charmed when I read that she argued with her publisher that she did not want to have a period after Mrs for Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who as they do in Europe. Why was that important to her?
She felt that those little typographical details would convey a great deal. For American readers, that little signal would show that these women were not typical.
You said you helped her answer her mail from readers. What were some of the questions she got asked most often?
“Where do you get your ideas?” She liked to quote Papa Bach, who said he couldn’t get up in the morning without tripping over ideas. What to write about was never a problem. More than questions, the letters that touched her deeply were the ones from readers who were so moved by what they read in her books that they felt that they could trust her. They shared a lot of themselves. The Facebook page for A Wrinkle in Time has a number of comments from people who say, “This book changed my life.” She really felt deeply honored by that and took it very seriously.
Meg is somebody everyone can identify with. Everyone feels misunderstood and alone some of the time.
And the fact that its her faults that save her, that’s important, too. She really was like Meg, the passionate intensity, the emotionalism. If she felt something she had to say it. That kind of authenticity was totally her. She wrote fiction and non-fiction and there were elements of non-fiction and truth-telling in her fiction and elements of fiction in her non-fiction, the narrative of it.
What about Charles Wallace, who is only five but is so wise and knowledgeable?
He’s a leap of imagination. It’s not like she knew anybody who was like that. In one of the early drafts, she calls him a mutant. In the final version they just say, “he knew.”
He might be the next level of evolution.
Your grandmother was so prolific. Do you have a favorite of her books?
I have a very strong connection to The Small Rain, which was her first book. She was always a little disappointed when I told her that. “Well, I hope my books get better!” But I thought Katherine Forrester, who was the protagonist, was terrific, and that book tackled young womenhood with great insight.
What did she teach you?
One of the most important things I learned from her was her sense of discipline. And discipline as a way of creating order so there would be opportunities for growth. She practiced the piano religiously. She went to bed every night at nine o’clock. She took a bath and shut the twelve shutters in her bedroom in a very methodical way. When I was a teenager, I didn’t get that! But the sense of order that an outward discipline gave her helped with the internal discipline needed for writing and using her writing to make sense of the chaos that is in everybody’s life.
The religious discipline worked the same way, the liturgical calendar, the liturgical year. She read the Bible every night. She liked to quote Karl Barth, who said, “I take the Bible much too seriously to read it literally.” It gave her a framework.