L’Engle’s World: ‘Wrinkle in Time’ defied trends and ignored the market

Courtesy photo Madeleine L’Engle, author of the timeless classic “Wrinkle in Time.”

“You have to write the story that wants to be written. And if the book would be too difficult for grown-ups, you write it for children.”

– Madeleine L’Engle

If this statement sounds contradictory or, at the very least, contrary to expectation, welcome to the world of Madeleine L’Engle.

Tomorrow Disney will release its 2018 film of L’Engle’s classic “Wrinkle in Time,” directed by Ava DuVernay, and starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Storm Reid, Zach Galifianakis and Chris Pine.

A curious New Hampshire connection is that Jennifer Lee, a graduate of the University of New Hampshire – the first female director of a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film and winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for “Frozen” – also is an avid L’Engle enthusiast selected to write the screen play for “Wrinkle.” Written in 1959, “Wrinkle in Time” was rejected by 26 publishers even though L’Engle already had published six books. It found a home with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which eventually published it as its first children’s book in 1962. “Wrinkle” won the 1963 Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and was runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. It has been published in countless editions – 10 million copies – and has never been out of print. Yet, from the start, it was a problematic bestseller. “Wrinkle” baffled editors, defied trends and ignored the market. It didn’t fit any category and took on difficult topics like good and evil.

Was it for children or adults? Was it science fiction? If so, why was there a female protagonist? Wasn’t it just a bit too philosophical?

To add to the puzzle, Meg Murry was not the classic heroine: She was plain, awkward, insecure and outspoken, painfully aware of her faults, but also memorable as her faults eventually save her life. One editor called the book “distinctly odd.” To add to the enigma, “Wrinkle” became one of the most celebrated – and banned – books of the American Library Association, at 23rd among the most frequently challenged books of the 1990s.

Christians called it “anti-Christ;” others called it “too religious.”

L’Engle’s response: “If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we’ll likely find them.”

Meanwhile, L’Engle battled for decades with producers who kept trying to rewrite the story, omit certain characters or convert it from a science story to a science fiction story- but L’Engle stood her ground.

The idea for the book began with three characters on a summer camping trip out west: “We drove through a world of deserts and buttes and leafless mountains, wholly new and alien to me. Suddenly into my mind came the names Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.”

At the same time, L’Engle happened to be reading the “new” quantum physics. The two merged not because L’Engle knew what she was doing, but precisely because she entered her unknowing. The tale hinges on the tesseract – a geometrical model formed from taking the square of a cube, a complex mathematical idea that she took one step further, – into time.

If time were like a tesseract, there might be other ways to skip over “gaps” to shorten the journey. Hence the “wrinkle” in time that enables characters Meg and Calvin to travel in time.

L’Engle went toward the enigmas of quantum reality in the late 1950s, when barely anyone knew what quantum physics was. Physicists were searching for metaphors to explain what did not make sense to the “logical” mind. By training herself to listen to what she did not know, intellectually L’Engle became perhaps the first writer to bring quantum physics out of the laboratory – in its infancy – and into the living room in a young adult novel.

But “Wrinkle” is so much more than scientific fantasy. Like a fine poem, it keeps revealing new truths in layers.

L’Engle: “The fact that ‘Wrinkle’ is deeply embedded in both theology and physics had little to do with me, and this puts me in my proper place as a servant struggling … to be faithful to the work, the work which slowly and gently tries to teach me some of what it knows. Sometimes it is years after a book is published that I discover what some of it meant.”

It is no coincidence that the three angelic figures in “Wrinkle” bear the names of questions rather than answers. L’Engle: “Sometimes I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and that the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.”

The more she discovered about physics, the more wonder L’Engle saw in Creation and the Creator. As it turns out, “Wrinkle” – and L’Engle – both were way ahead of their time. “Wrinkle in Time” demonstrates that the world, that reality is much larger and wider than human imagination, that it is most likely contradictory to our logic, and filled with unexpected realities we cannot fathom – and evil may be far more pedestrian than we think, as simple and common as clinging to convention or pre-judging others because they differ from us.

In “Wrinkle,” L’Engle makes her own argument for both the gap and the journey – the gap between doubt and certainty. When you face a gap between what you know and the unknown, do you bring your sense of wonder or a bag full of judgments?

At no time in history are we made more aware of mystery than now when science surprises us every day. L’Engle warns us to take our humanity with us on this journey across the gap from what we know to what we do not know-and may even fear because it is new or different. She heralds the power of the individual to impact the cosmos, the power of art to bring cosmos out of the chaos of the world.

And above all, do not underestimate the children who “have an openness and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts which many adults have lost. Writers of children’s literature are set apart by their willingness to confront difficult questions.”

Truth, it turns out, is a many-splendored thing. Religion – or theology – science and magic may be different aspects of the great mystery we can only partly imagine. The fact that “Wrinkle in Time” has managed to defy categories and labels is much of its greatness, for like all great art, it only begins to suggest and mirror something far greater than the imagination of the artist. In “Wrinkle,” I love what Aunt Beast says so simply: “We do not know what things look like, as you say, we know what things are like. It must be a very limited thing this seeing.”

L’Engle constantly challenged herself to listen to the story: “The artist, if he is not to forget how to listen, must retain the vision which includes angels and dragons and unicorns, and all the lovely creatures which our world would put in a box marked Children Only.”

D. Quincy Whitney is a career journalist, author, historian and Nashua resident of more than 40 years. Contact Whitney at quincysquill@nashuatelegraph.com.