On January 1, 2017, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time celebrated its 55th year in publication. Although this singular science-fiction-fantasy novel has marked itself as one of the foremost beloved children's books of the last half century, A Wrinkle in Time was not met without rejection, obstacles, and many, many naysayers.
But before delving into the storied history and cultural impact of this extraordinary work of fiction, it is first important to explore the story behind Wrinkle's equally indelible author: Madeleine L'Engle.
Born Madeleine L’Engle Camp in New York City on November 29, 1918, Madeleine began writing at a very young age, producing her very first story when she was just five years old. "I've been a writer ever since I could hold a pencil," she told Humanities magazine.
Madeleine moved around quite a bit as a child. When she was 12, she and her parents migrated to Europe where her father served in the military. While there, she attended a Swiss boarding school. The family returned to America a few years later; however, they were torn apart when Madeleine's father died due to health problems sustained while serving in the First World War.
After high school, Madeleine attended Smith College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1941 with a bachelor's degree in English. She then moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a published writer. She found steady work writing in the theater, and self-published her first novel, The Small Rain, in 1945. While A Small Rain was a minor success for the budding author, Madeleine's sophomore attempt, Ilsa (1946), was met with much less enthusiasm. Although Madeleine's writing career wasn't taking off as quickly as she'd hoped, her personal life was flourishing. In 1946, she married actor Hugh Franklin, whom she met during the production of A Cherry Orchard.
Her next novel, And Both Were Young, released in 1949, is considered her first real foray into children's fiction. Madeleine drew on her experiences from her childhood and set the story of a young girl experiencing first love in a Swiss boarding school.
Throughout the 1950s, Madeleine faced rejection after rejection of both her children's and adult novels. Despite finding quiet success in her 1957 novel Winter's Love, Madeleine was not satisfied. When her latest attempt, The Lost Innocent, was also rejected, the 40-year-old author began to seriously entertain the idea of giving up her lifelong passion.
"This was an obvious sign from heaven. I should stop trying to write," she wrote in her 1971 memoir A Circle of Quiet. At this point, Madeleine had two children with her husband — a daughter named Josephine and a son named Bion. "All during the decade of my thirties I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn't like a good New England housewife and mother. When I scrubbed the kitchen floor, the family cheered. I couldn't make decent pie crust. . .," she continued. "And with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially."
But when she unearthed her dusty typewriter as a final act of submission, she had an epiphany that would change her life forever. "In my journal I recorded this moment of decision, for that's what it was. I had to write. I had no choice in the matter. It was not up to me to say I would stop because I could not. It didn't matter how small or inadequate my talent. If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing."
And luckily, she did. The 1960s found Madeleine with a renewed enthusiasm for writing, which was reflected in her deeply imaginative work. At the beginning of the decade, she published Meet the Austins, which was the first of her children's novels to receive widespread critical acclaim. Centering around a family who adopts a young girl after her own family dies, the novel would spawn four sequels.
Madeleine's children were actually the first to read her next novel – a fantastical tale about a girl who searches through time and space for her missing scientist father. A Wrinkle in Time was an innovative piece of writing that struggled to find a place outside of Madeleine's inner circle, and was rejected by a total of 26 publishers.
Tackling such subjects as quantum physics, mega parsecs (a unit that measures distances in intergalactic space) and tessaracts (a four-dimension analog of the cube), and with passages in French, Italian, and Ancient Greek, the book was deemed far too complicated and advanced for children. Madeleine, however, was convinced otherwise; and the only way for her to get her work noticed was to personally hand the novel to publisher John Farrar. According to NPR Books, the publishers had early misgivings, with the book's editor calling it "distinctly odd" but conceding, "I for one believe that the capabilities of young readers are greatly underestimated."
Luckily, he was right. After finally finding its home at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, A Wrinkle in Time was an instant hit with readers all around the world – of all ages. Not only was it a commercial success, with over 10 million copies in print to date, A Wrinkle in Time was cemented as a classic after earning the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1963.
Regardless of its critical and commercial success, the book wasn't immune to criticism. As outstanding as its ideas were, not everyone was moved by A Wrinkle in Time's theological, social, and religious themes. Critics (many of whom were Catholic) called the book blasphemous for its "inaccurate" depiction of God, and for embracing myth and fantasy in place of religious doctrine. In opposition, there were also those who believed it was too "overtly Christian."
So, in spite of the many naysayers, what made A Wrinkle in Time such a lasting work of fiction? It may actually be Madeleine's stubborn, insecure, and "outrageously plain" protagonist Meg Murray. "Of course I'm Meg," Madeleine has said of her heroine.
"It was a dark and stormy night," the book begins, an homage to the opening words of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel Paul Clifford. This is where Meg's journey lifts off. Alongside her five-year-old brother Charles Wallace and her new friend O'Keefe, Meg utilizes time travel and extrasensory perception to rescue her scientist father from a planet under siege by the Black Thing, a dangerous entity that may or may not be Evil itself.
Although inspired by sophisticated concepts such as Einstein's theory of relativity and Planck's quantum theory, A Wrinkle in Time uses one concept that is universally understood: love. Meg embarks on her adventure because of her love for her father – something that everyone, both young and old, can relate to.
Perhaps children's author Rebecca Stead said it best when asked by NPR Books about A Wrinkle in Time's impact: "[It] 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."
Madeleine would revisit the adventures of Meg Murray (later O'Keefe) four more times. A Wrinkle in Time was followed by A Wind in the Door in 1973, A Swiftly Tilting Planet in 1978, Many Waters in 1986, and lastly, An Acceptable Time in 1989, in a series that would fondly become known as Madeleine's "Time Quintet."
Over 20 years after her husband Franklin's passing, Madeleine L'Engle died of natural causes in Litchfield, Connecticut on September 6, 2007. She was 88 years old. She is survived by her three children: Josephine, Bion, and her adopted daughter, Maria. She was inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame in 2011.
When asked by a writer's panel why she writes for younger people, Madeleine replied, "I suppose I write for children because I'm not bright enough to understand the difference between a children's and an adult's novel." And this idea that good writing is ageless is something that Madeleine embraced throughout her career, although she often rebuffed the notion that she was a children's writer at all. "I'm not a children's writer," she wrote in A Circle of Quiet. "I'm not a Christian writer. I resist and reject that kind of classification. I'm a writer period. People underestimate children. They think you have to write differently. You don't. You just have to tell a story."
Following countless adaptations, including many graphic novels and a 2003 movie, A Wrinkle in Time has once again been adapted to film, this time starring newcomer Storm Reid as the precocious protagonist Meg Murray. Directed by Golden Globe nominee Ava DuVernay, the supporting cast includes Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which, Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit, and Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who, the movie debuts in theaters April 6, 2018. ~Shelby Morton
Photo Credit: Sigrid Estrad