Monday, November 14, 2011

At Long Last--Tessering!

     What book do you wish you had read as a child?  Are you kidding?  I read everything as a child!!
      A trip to the public library was as much a part of my week as piano lessons and allergy shots.  Plus, there were the biweekly class visits to the school library…and then I remembered.  Until graduate school, I had never read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
    Why not?
    Simple.  The one copy in the school library was always checked out.  For two years I watched someone else check out the book with the cool “space age” jacket graphics.  Wrinkle was the must read, IT book, for fifth and sixth graders. Madeleine L’Engle was our J.K. Rowling.
     The public library?   It owned multiple copies….all apparently on “permanent” check out.
     Then I went to junior high.  The librarian informed me that “Newbery books are for younger children” with a look that made me feel like a dolt for even asking.   
   Years passed and I went to the University of Tennessee, where an MLIS in children’s services meant reading hundreds of children’s books.  Their library had multiple copies of everything, including AWrinkle in Time.
     I’m glad that I read this as an adult.  In elementary school, I would have seen a quest/adventure novel.  The first line of the book is “It was a dark and stormy night.”   I wouldn’t have understood the irony, but would immediately have been drawn into  Meg Murry’s world.
     Meg sounded oddly like me (probably every girl who has read this book thinks the same thing); she has braces and glasses and no social graces. Her father has simply disappeared, apparently abandoning his family.  Again, I could identify.  My father, the FBI agent was gone on out-of-town assignments for months at a time. Some of the neighbors asked if I really had a father.
     That Meg is something of a math whiz and all the math references would have stopped me momentarily. I hated math and didn’t understand people who did.  But by the time we learn this about Meg, we are already invested in her as a character, so I would’ve overlooked this character “flaw”.
    I know I wouldn’t have understood most of L’Engle’s literary references, and would have skipped over them. They are not essential to the basic story.
   What I would’ve understood was the theme of Conformity is Evil and we should all Do Our Own thing.  I would’ve been reading this in 1966, at the dawn of the "Age of Aquarius," when life was all about Sticking it to the Establishment.  The conformity on the planet Camzotz, would have reminded me of a favorite folk song, Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes.”
  Little boxes on the hillside,
  Little boxes made of ticky tacky, 
  Little boxes on the hillside,
  Little boxes all the same.
  There's a green one and a pink one
  And a blue one and a yellow one
  And they're all made out of ticky tacky
  And they all look just the same.   
      Down with conformity! Up with the individual!
      As an adult reader, I viewed the struggle between the villain, IT and Meg, for the soul of her little brother, Charles Wallace, in more spiritual terms. Reading it then (and now) I focused more on the themes of Good and Evil.  I read this the same year I saw Star Wars, and was struck by the similarity in theme. (“Go toward the light, Luke!”)
      As a writer, I know something about Madeleine L’Engle’s struggle to publish this book, her second.  After 30 some rejections, L’Engle had thrown in the towel. Had her agent not sent it to just one more editor, Robert Farrar, at what is now Farrar Straus Giroux, it would never have seen the light of day.  (This is a story I tell myself every time I get a rejection.) When your rejections include words like “weird” “strange” and the ever popular “unmarketable” you sort of lose hope.
      I am sure that those childrens’ editors found the Cold War themes of totalitarianism, brainwashing and a numb existence, unsuitable for children.  When it was finally published in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, these themes resonated even more. I don’t believe it was an accident that it became the 1963 Newbery winner. (Newbery committees are notable for thinking outside the box—boxes made of ticky tacky.)
     As a writer, I did have trouble with my suspension of disbelief from time to time.  I accepted that Meg and Charles Wallace spoke like adults (because they were “different”).  I was willing to believe “tessering”, even if the explanation involved math and physics (which I still don’t understand.)  I couldn’t decide what Calvin’s role was in all this (Friend? lLove interest? Set up for future sequels?)  I also couldn’t figure out just why Meg’s father was being held captive on Camzotz.  But these are minor points in a book that has stood the test of time.
     2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Wrinkle’s publication.  I have not read any of the Harry Potter books (either). I wonder if kids will be as wild about Harry, fifty years hence. I think Meg Murry will be around in 2062.
 Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Nancy said...

I didn't read "wrinkle" until I was an adult, I am not sure why, I read everything else. Possibly our library's copy was always checked out too. I am sorry I missed it though because I miss having that childhood connection to it like I do so many other classics.

Tara said...

I, too, read "Wrinkle" as an my 10 year old daughter. I'm glad I waited - it will be an experience we will always remember.

mary ann rodman said...

Tara you just gave me a great idea. Our family likes to read aloud...and no one (except me) has read WRINKLE.
I think it is one of those ageless books that can be appreciated at different levels at different ages (Nancy, my childhood connection to the book was the indelible book cover...I've always remembered it, and who remembers book jackets for 50 years?). Anyway, WRINKLE would make a good holiday read aloud for the endless hours we'll spend on the road over the holidays
(if I hide my daughters I-phone).

Joyce Ray said...

Mary Ann, I just re-read Wrinkle to see how L'Engle crafted the character of Charles Wallace. I first read it as a mom after my child read and loved her. Now her daughter has enjoyed the first book. It will continue to stand the test of time, I believe. Thanks for a great post.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Little boxes is one my all-time favorite songs, too!